They Remain opens with lingering desolate shots of the environment, establishing an extensive atmosphere of possibilities. From the moment the film starts, the tension builds, and the audience never quite knows what’s going on. For a thriller, this is the perfect way to set up an unexpected ride.
They Remain, written and directed by Philip Gelatt, is based on Laird Barron’s short story —30—, and revolves around two scientists who are on location at an abandoned area to research animal behavior on land that was previously inhabited by a cult. The film never concentrates on what the cult’s motivation was, just that it had Manson Family tendencies, and the story is better for it. The unknown lurks just below the surface, waiting to make its appearance in one way or the other. That is the perfect recipe for unexplained situations, but the thing that allows it to continue to hold strong in its ambience is the acting.
The scientists, Keith (William Jackson Harper) and Jessica (Rebecca Henderson), spend most of the time alone, surveying the area and combing through the samples to find some resemblance of the conclusions they were hoping for. It’s a hard task being not only the center of the story but the sole foundation for it. Their understated performance only adds to the tension that builds as the story moves forward. You never are fully sure of what is going on with these characters, especially Jessica.
Henderson plays her as a strong female, one who isn’t afraid to be who she is, but you’re not sure if that includes her being contemptible towards Keith or if there is something else going on. It’s in cases like this that the audience slips into the role of Keith, someone who is just trying to do their job and get back to civilization unscathed. Their relationship becomes more complicated and visceral, yet somehow drives an even bigger wedge between these two and their positions in the overall scientific project. These two are one of the strongest parts of the story.
The way the tension builds is the other. The tension isn’t thrown at you, it’s not flashy or cause for spectacle. Thrillers sometimes tend to overdo the mood of the film, becoming heavy handed in the way they want the audience to feel. They Remain is the opposite, it allows for the unknown to cast a shadow around the film, creating an environment in which the audience decides what is real and what is occult.
There is a downside, though, to keeping the audience in relative darkness. With the lack of distinction on what the course of action the film is taking, there are moments of confusion in trying to figure out the placement of the plot. Vagueness is good in building tension, but when things start to take an eccentric turn, the audience has to catch up in understanding what exactly is going on. In those moments, you are taken out of the story as you try to put the puzzle back together.
Nonspecific information can be an unpredictable tool, but if it’s done right the concerns over it fade away. The ambiguous elements of the plot only add to the tension and is quickly forgivable because the audience is sucked back into the story and the truth. There are times the editing causes the film to become disjointed, but it one doesn’t focus too long on technical elements, it once again flows into to the tension.
They Remain thrives on the possibility that lies in the unknown, in what we think we know and where our brain fills in the rest. It’s a film filled with beauty in the vastness of the environment, spearheaded by talented actors who can carry a complicated story with composure. It may not be a flashy suspense thriller, but that makes it more of an experience to witness.
They Remain will be released nationwide on March 9th. To view the trailer, please head over to Vimeo.
Written by Lisa Mejia
Images provided by Paladin