When someone you love kills themselves, a strange and specifically unbearable form of grief takes hold. There’s the base-level sadness that comes after any death, impossible enough on its own, but it’s then swirled together with a jolting shock, a confusing anger and, worst of all, a haunting curiosity. There are unthinkably difficult questions that linger, questions that will most likely never be answered, a cruelly unsatiated hunger for a truth that will forever be a mystery.
In The Signal director David Bruckner’s rattling new film The Night House, which premiered back at Sundance in 2020, that particularly gnawing affliction seeps into the life of teacher Beth (Rebecca Hall) after her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) takes a boat out on the lake and shoots himself (with a gun she didn’t even know he owned). An inevitable unravelling follows as Beth pieces together the mess he left behind, from his maddening riddle of a note (“You were right, there is nothing, nothing is after you”) to a secret life being lived right under her nose. Who was she really married to and why does it feel like he hasn’t fully left?
The Night House is a film of unfolding duality, both in what it’s telling and how it’s told. Beth’s desperate search for something, anything that might shed light on this crippling darkness that has burrowed its way into her mind, leads her to find out about a second life and a second home, a husband who was one thing to her and something very different to others. Answers come to her in the real world but also in something close to a dream and there’s a Hitchcockian double, played by Stacy Martin, who looks like a version of Beth. There’s a conveyor belt of tantalising reveals, reminiscent of 90s/00s thrillers such as Deceived, Double Jeopardy and What Lies Beneath, of a woman figuring out her husband isn’t quite as perfect as she had assumed. But the film disappointingly follows suit, the elegant, if formulaic, investigation of the first two thirds turning into something far more ambitious, and far less successful, in the final act.
Co-writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski deserves some points perhaps for the big swing, but it’s one that feels a little too indebted to the recent-ish rise in so-called “elevated horror”, a rather grossly dismissive way of describing a sub-genre of artful films that use fantastical elements to comment on more substantive issues (examples range from The Babadook to Hereditary to The Witch to Midsommar). In trying to make their film about something, in a way that goes from clumsily obvious to frustratingly opaque, our investment starts to wither. The entertainingly chin-stroking drip-drip reveal of information starts to pool into a spillage and it’s one that Bruckner isn’t able to effectively clean up. The specifics of what’s really going on are far sillier than the film would have you believe and told in a way that’s scrappier than Hall deserves. What truly keeps it all afloat though, even in its messier moments, is her never-better performance, grounding some of the schlock with an intense, unwavering command of the material and without resorting to histrionics, she’s incredibly effective in conveying the hollowing horror of grief. It’s top-tier stuff, a towering actor looking down on the less convincing film around her, and it made me wonder why she’s been so absent of late, save for a thankless role in Godzilla v Kong.
It’s also an undeniably impressive showcase for Bruckner, graduating to something far slicker and bigger than what we’ve seen from him before (his last film was patchy woodland horror The Ritual). He makes the most of the nooks and shadows of his sleek central house and its surroundings and orchestrates a number of brutally efficient jump scares, one of which will eject even the most hardened horror fan from their seat. It’ll be curious to see what he does with his Hellraiser remake next, the blur of effectively nightmarish, if increasingly nonsensical, images in this film’s finale suggesting he’ll handle it, at least visually, with aplomb.
There are enough crafty surprises buried within The Night House to just about outweigh the elements that don’t work quite as well, mainly because it’s all delivered with such fiery conviction by Hall. The house might be built on shaky foundations but its inhabitant is utterly unshakable.
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