Things Heard & Seen is a better movie than its title. However, I’m afraid not by much. The ideas in the film are more fascinating than the movie ever dares to be.
Directed and adapted by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini from Elizabeth Brundage’s novel “All Things Cease to Appear,” the movie trundles along at a clumsy pace. Berman and Pulcini have gathered an incredible cast to act out a staggeringly inert marriage drama that spirals into a story of paranormal revenge. It is a shame because the movie is constantly on the edge of doing something interesting.
The movie is built on age-old sturdy plot elements. A family moves from Manhattan to Upstate New York when the husband George (James Norton) accepts a professorship at the local university. They movie into a lovely old home only to discover that it comes with a bloody past that’s more recent than they would like.
George and Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) are a happily married couple, but the cracks begin to show before leaving the borough. At a party thrown for George completing his Ph.D., we learn that Catherine is both bulimic and that she is once again being asked to put her life on hold to support George. An artist herself, she stopped painting to raise their daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger).
This aspect of Things Heard & Seen is familiar territory for literature and film—the American tragedy as seen via a family of middle-class Wasps. To Berman’s and Pulcini’s credit, they almost pull it off. Norton has the kind of face that drenches with a sort of smarmy obnoxiousness one would expect from an art history professor teaching at an upstate college.
It’s the slow cracking of Geroge’s visage that is a mildly fascinating aspect of Things Heard & Seen. Or it would be if Berman and Pulcini didn’t drag it out for so long. Even then, it’s not the slipping of the visage itself as to how the people around George react.
Most notably Justine (Rhea Seehorn), a colleague to George and friend to Claire, and Floyd (F. Murray Abraham), the University president. Abraham’s Floyd is a man excited to have a new professor and keen to get to know the new couple, only to suspect that possibly George is not all he seems. Likewise, Seehorn’s Justine does the same; only she is quick to see the violence and emptiness that fills George.
Seehorn’s Justine almost steals the show, which considering how stacked the cast is, is saying something. Her performance is unpredictable and magnetic as we’re never quite sure how she’s going to react. Seehorn’s face is a captivating mixture of serenity, bemusement, and deep suspicion.
Things Heard & Seen tries to explore mysticism and the way the past imprints itself onto the present. It does this by name-dropping and somewhat interrogating the works of theologian Emanuel Swedenborg and the painter George Inness. The characters spend a lot of time referencing the two men. The filmmakers, along with Larry Smith, the cinematographer, even try to at times try to mimic Inness’s melancholic evocative landscapes.
Except, there’s a difference between photographing the landscapes and painting them, and Smith never quite strikes a balance to make the shots evoke any kind of haunting ambiance. However, there are times where he comes close to succeeding, if only because Peter Raeburn’s score often succeeds where Berman and Pulcini fail.
But there’s the rub. Things Heard & Seen is always on the verge of being effective, creepy, or exciting but never quite gets there. The spooky stuff is spooky and well done, the drama teeters on being captivating, but it’s all done well enough that, while it’s not dull, it is somewhat irritating.
Seyfried is tailor-made for Catherine. I dare say she is perfect for the horror genre. With her big expressive eyes, Seyfried wears the look of a haunted, troubled woman so well it’s a shame such an excellent performance feels wasted. Seyfried’s Catherine is a woman on the verge of collapse with her bulimia, her isolation from friends and family, and the strange voices she and Franny keep hearing at night.
Berman’s and Pulicini’s script is just flat. Nothing stands out. There’s an attempt to create a sort of restrained eroticism as both George and Catherine begin to stray from one another. George runs into a college girl Willis (Natalia Dyer), and the two begin an affair almost immediately despite her initial reticence.
Willis confides to her friend Eddy (Alex Neustaedter), Claire’s handyman, that she knows George is a bad man because otherwise she wouldn’t be attracted to him. Eddy can’t offer much advice; he’s busy trying not to fall for Catherine. All of this panting and staring longingly never feels like anything more other than muted disinterest.
Smith’s camera lingers on Neustadedter’s body as he takes his shirt off. Catherine stares from a distance, clearly affected by his body. But Berman and Pulicini are never able to get the simmering desires across as anything other than mildly intellectual. Even when Catherine and Eddy finally embrace, it comes off as a dud, almost anti-climatic moment. There’s no spark between the two. It’s not the actor’s fault because there are no sparks anywhere in the movie.
There’s also a subplot involving Eddy and his little brother Cole (Jack Gore), and they reveal that they used to live in Claire’s house. Then the ghosts begin to try and influence Catherine and George in ways that more than a little resembles The Shining.
Whenever new characters were introduced, I wondered what the movie would be like if we followed them instead. Karen Allen as the real estate agent and her husband, the Sheriff played by old reliable himself, Micahel O’Keefe are a perfect example. They don’t have many scenes together, but what little time they do have, they feel like a real couple with memories, good and bad, in their past.
The film begins to build momentum towards the end, and Berman and Pulcini begin to take some visual chances, at times almost unsettling. But it never quite gets there; the ending feels abrupt and more than a little bit derivative.
Things Heard & Seen has a lot of threads, none of them successfully woven together. Though some do brush against one another and even eventually overlap, but never in any satisfactory or artful way. Much like Catherine, we are left wondering if this is all there is.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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