“They Remain” exists in the vast, yet somehow claustrophobic, setting of a research camp in the middle of an eerie wood. It follows the events that unfold upon two scientists who have been tasked with investigating a vague, but horrific massacre that took place in those woods, at the hands of a mysterious cult. Empty days of exploring and analyzing their surroundings give way to fear and panic as troubling events begin to occur.
From the outset, I’ll say that my relationship with “They Remain” is hot and cold. It’s an interesting film that has some great performances and the kind of slow burn that I enjoy in my thrillers. It’s also painfully complex, thinks it’s deeper than it actually is, and leaves me with more questions than answers at the end of its nearly two-hour runtime.
The film keeps it simple with a cast of two: William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson. “They Remain” is based on a short story by Laird Barron and is directed, edited, and scripted by Philip Gelatt.
“They Remain” occupies a very intimate space. The cast of characters is small. The stage is contained and has a way of getting smaller and smaller as the world shrinks down from the woods to the encampment to even tighter spaces within. The plot is not overly vast which means we spend a lot of time focusing on the very smallest of details. Tiny things have meaning here, which can get boring and maybe even maddening… or is that the point?
That’s a common thing with “They Remain”. I can’t tell, half the time, if I think something is brilliant or boring. But I know it’s dense.
The feeling of isolation that the storytelling creates is awesome. It builds suspense and paranoia, you’re as unsure as the characters. What’s happening here? When the story hits a fever pitch of panic and desperation, it’s easy to understand how we got there.The supernatural elements and symbolism are extremely stylish. The dreamlike presentation lends itself well to that overarching theme of blurring reality with panicked visions.
The parts are pretty. Sean Kirby’s cinematography pulls double duty in that it speaks to the sweeping vastness of the setting and also hints at tense intimacy and isolation. From a purely mechanical standpoint, beautiful establishing shots show how large this world is. That the story is unfolding in the middle of nowhere, a speck in a vast wilderness. Kirby has a masterful take on showing the isolation of the characters, placing them in a sort of uncomfortable tension. At odds with their surroundings, the situation, and each other. The performances by Harper and Henderson are deliciously subtle. As I mentioned previously, small things matter in this tale and that is embodied in these performances. It is easy to play madness and terror with obnoxious loudness, but it is so much more compelling to see those emotions slowly seep in or exist in a flicker of the expression. Well done.
This is the latest in the sweeping trend of “smart sci-fi”. As much as I give it hell, “They Remain” is smart. It is structured like a masterwork. The individual elements are very well done. The fatal flaw of “They Remain”? It just doesn’t give me enough.
Which is a real shame. I bought into this world and was ready to see more and to unpack the mysteries or, at least, be terrified by them. But, the film spent too long in that haze of building up the danger but when the danger finally arrived it was underwhelming.
As I said at the beginning, “They Remain” has me hot and cold. There was some really great work here. A good slow burn carried by great performances. It was suspenseful and intelligent. But, it stopped just short of giving me what I really wanted. Which may not have bothered me as much if I didn’t think the film was patting itself on the back for doing so.
“They Remain” will be available on VOD on Tuesday, May 29.
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.