Things Heard & Seen (2021)
Mistrust your senses.
Part existential horror and part relationship drama, Things Heard & Seen is an odd mishmash of genres that makes for a fascinating watch, despite the sum-of-its-parts never quite adding up. On the surface, the film appears to be a generic Conjuring-type ghost story; yet this latest Netflix offering has more on its mind than your average spookfest. The film is based around the theories of Emanuel Swedenborg and the painting Valley of the Shadow of Death, created by 19th-century American painter George Inness. Although the pacing is off and it doesn’t fully come together, the movie works best when it’s depicting the deterioration of a marriage. Kudos, however, should be given to husband-and-wife filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor (2003), for trying something strangely different.
Adapted from the 2016 novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Things Heard & Seen is set in 1980 and focuses on couple George Claire (James Norton) and his wife, Catherine (Amanda Seyfried), who live in an apartment in Manhattan with their four-year-old daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger). Catherine is an experienced art restorer, while George has just accepted a prestigious new job at a private college in upstate New York. Catherine has agreed to drop everything to move to an 18th-century farmhouse in the Hudson Valley to support her husband. At first glance, they appear to be happily married, until we see Catherine force herself to throw up in the bathroom at her daughter’s birthday party and tell a friend that she ‘owes’ it to George to move to the country, even if she clearly isn’t happy with the decision.
Once at the old homestead, Catherine finds it hard to settle in — she feels isolated in the giant house and begins to find old objects that belonged to the home’s previous owners. Things get weirder when Catherine notices lights flickering, constantly starts smelling car exhaust fumes, and hearing piano chords. Franny sees visions of a woman dressed in black, too. However, instead of being afraid, Catherine becomes more curious, but George is very dismissive and cynical about the whole thing. Catherine eventually speaks to George’s boss, Professor Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), who’s a Swedenborg enthusiast, about the otherworldly forces in her home, with Floyd offering to hold a séance in secret. As Catherine learns about the house’s history, it becomes clear that the female ghosts pose very little threat, but the male spirits are feeding on the darkness within her husband, ultimately making him more dangerous than the things that go bump in the night.
Penned by Berman and Pulcini, Things Heard & Seen is at its best when it’s focusing on the human drama, mainly how women can suffer from the vile acts of men. Throughout the narrative, it becomes increasingly evident that Catherine’s husband isn’t a nice guy. George is arrogant and pigheaded, has an affair with a twenty-something girl named Willis (Natalia Dyer), and becomes very aggressive towards his colleague Justine Sokolov (Rhea Seehorn) after she befriends Catherine and begins to make her more curious and independent. It’s Catherine’s friendship with Justine that gets her to question George’s past, eventually unveiling his dark secrets.
The supernatural elements of the movie serve to expose the deceitful George for the monster he is. When Catherine learns that malicious spirits are drawn to evil people, she realizes that the ghost who’s trying to contact her is a benevolent one, potentially attempting to warn her of her troubled marriage. While the ‘scary stuff’ might feel out of place, the narrative toys with Swedenborg’s ideas of a connection or bridge between the real world and the divine, including Heaven and Hell and the realm where ghosts reside. With that said, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have fun with the horror tropes — we have creepy rocking chairs, pale-faced ghouls lurking in the background, and a scene where Catherine pulls a weird mutant fetus out of the sink. While these elements don’t necessarily gel together, they’re interesting enough on a visual level despite not fully making sense, primarily the utterly bonkers last scene, which functions as a rather striking metaphor.
The dazzling Amanda Seyfried, You Should Have Left (2020), does much of the heavy lifting and brings the whole production up a couple of notches as Catherine, a wronged woman who feels trapped and out of place, living in fear of her spouse. James Norton, Little Women (2019), also does a tremendous job as the sniveling George, a narcissist, cheater, and pathological liar. Norton is truly detestable in the role. Rhea Seehorn, Veep (2019), is great as George’s matter-of-fact colleague Justine who, very quickly, realizes that Claire’s marriage is on unstable ground, whilst Alex Neustaedter, A-X-L (2018), gives off a creepy vibe as Eddie Vayle, a local who offers to help Catherine out around the farm while George is away. Finally, it’s always great seeing the famed F. Murray Abraham, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), who does a good job here as George’s boss Professor DeBeers.
Things Heard & Seen sports resplendent production values. The autumnal cinematography by Larry Smith, Only God Forgives (2013), captures the chilly atmosphere of the small town and secluded countryside, while the production design by Lester Cohen, Cop Land (1997), makes for a cold, moody, and foreboding backdrop. Several landscape paintings from the Hudson River School also appear prominently throughout the film, the movement of which painter Inness was a part. Whilst it’s obvious that filmmakers Berman and Pulcini don’t have the biggest budget to play with — major events, such as a car crash, happen off-screen — they do manage to do a lot with the money they’ve got.
All up, Things Heard & Seen is a strange little film. Filmmakers Berman and Pulcini weave two different genres together with varied results; the movie hits and misses in equal measure but offers viewers enough food for thought to make it worth viewing. Either way, given the middling reception the film has received, I’ve heard and seen much worse.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)