Amanda Seyfried Contends with Ghosts (and Marriage) in Things Seen & Heard

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    Amanda Seyfried Contends with Ghosts (and Marriage) in Things Seen & Heard

    On this chilling episode of House Hunters: Renovation—also called Things Heard & Seen  (Netflix, April 29)—pretty young couple Catherine (recent Oscar nominee Amanda Seyfried) and George (James Norton) find a fixer-upper dairy farm in the Hudson Valley with loads of potential. But there’s a problem. Not a cracked foundation or rot in the floor joists, mind you. It is, instead, a ghost.

    Lights are flickering ominously, Catherine hears piano music and smells car exhaust, and her daughter reports seeing a woman in her bedroom. We in the audience have also seen the woman, because Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s film wants us to know that what’s happening is real. There is definitely a ghost hovering in the house’s atmosphere, either menacing or simply restless. 

    Little of what Things Heard & Seen does with this haunting is inventive, though it is evocative. Based on Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 novel All Things Cease to Appear, the film is steeped in history and mysticism. George is an art history professor whose colleague, Floyd (F. Murray Abraham), runs seances with a group of locals devoted to the beliefs of Emanuel Swedenborg, a theologian who wrote about heaven and hell and angels and the passage between life and death. For further texture, there is also the history of George and Catherine’s house, discovered, in the old-fashioned way, through photographs, books, and microfiche. (The film takes place in 1979 and 1980.) 

    Things Heard & Seen is an intellectual sort of ghost mystery, though it is ultimately more interested in the wretched condition of living than it is in the dead. Catherine and George, first seen in their happily bustling life in New York City, outwardly seem like a smart, loving couple. But as is often the case in stories like these, there is a wrongness at the center of their marriage, a disquiet and unhappiness that tears its way out of them once they move upstate for George’s new job. Aspects of the film feel like Robert Zemeckis’s What Lies Beneath, in the way a ghost narrative is used to tease out corporeal secrets and betrayals within a marriage. 

    The mystery is handsomely mounted (it looks way classier than most Netflix original films) and admirably probing in its psychology. In addition to What Lies Beneath, the film belongs in the company of The Babadook, in which a woman’s psychic pain is literalized in the form of a monster stalking her son. Catherine is struggling with disordered eating, along with her loneliness and her suspicion that George is keeping things from her. Seyfried keenly expresses both Catherine’s fragility and mettle, while Norton shrewdly sullies George’s charms as the film grows darker.

    Violence against women, its countless occurrences throughout time, is the chief theme of the film, though it is ultimately landed on too hastily, as the film tethers Catherine to women of the past who were destroyed by terrible husbands. There’s a rich, mournful, furious invocation in that, but Springer Berman and Pulcini haven’t laid the proper groundwork to nail its eventual impact. 

    For the bulk of the film, Things Heard & Seen is a stylish, twisty mystery, tinged with sex and horror and some sly satire of academia. Its tasteful B-movie trappings don’t quite earn the grandness of the film’s finale, though. They can’t accommodate the bleakness of the penultimate twist, nor the swirling, supernatural metaphysics of the ending. The ambition of the film is respectable, intriguing. But a lot of its potential is left unused, hanging in its well-considered air. One is tempted to say that this should have been an elegant miniseries, but Netflix’s recent-ish The Haunting of Bly Manor unfortunately demonstrated what happens when ghost stories are drawn out for too long. 

    The real trouble of the film is that it is stuck, like a spirit, between spaces. It’s cramped in the liminal room between “prestige horror” and something more slick, squalid, and satisfying. The balance is off, for which a strong cast—Rhea Seehorn is particularly sharp as a colleague of George’s—and stately aesthetics can’t make up. Things Heard & Seen is well worth a watch, but its final minutes will probably cause at least a few people to throw something at the screen in frustration. Only, not in the way the filmmakers perhaps intended.

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    Published at Thu, 29 Apr 2021 00:32:57 +0000

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