The Night House (2020)
The truth will surface.
In the picturesque lake house that her late husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) built for them, grief-wracked Beth (Rebecca Hall) sips brandy and ponders the unsolvable enigma that is his suicide. One night, for no apparent reason, he rowed out into the middle of the lake and shot himself with a gun she didn’t even know he owned. Speaking to a friend, she explains that she was the one who wrestled with depression while he was her rock — to her, his choice to end his life is inexplicable.
For a certain value of “inexplicable,” that is. Even stranger is the mounting evidence — to her, at least — that Owen’s presence remains in their house, manifesting as a knock on the door, a glimpse of his naked form by the lake, and, gradually, more insistent, and frightening phenomena. This is, of course, in addition to the more physical and emotional traces of Owen’s existence: his clothes, his things, his digital footprint.
Combing through these, Beth finds evidence of secrets: among them, photos of women that bear a striking similarity to her. Was he carrying out an affair? Better, perhaps, to focus on his small but ominous occult library, complete with scrawled notes in the margins. Owen led a second life hidden from Beth, but why was it hidden, and how expansive was it? He was the center of her world, but was she his?
Grief is a devastating experience, and it’s a small word that encompasses such a complex, multifaceted process. A comprehensive definition of grief, or even the emotional components thereof, would fill an encyclopedia, but The Night House attempts to do almost exactly that in a measured 100 minutes. We witness Beth’s loss, her anger, her fear, her sense of betrayal, her alienation from her well-meaning but hopeless colleagues (Barry’s Sarah Goldberg among them), even her sardonic gallows humor.
But the real heart of the matter, and one absolutely key to the grieving of a suicide, is a question. Not just “why?” — that’s obvious. “Who?” is the one that keeps you up at night, especially if you didn’t see it coming. Did you ever think the deceased was capable of such an act? And if you did not, did you ever really know them at all?
Who were they?
That is The Night House’s line of inquiry, and director David Bruckner, The Ritual (2017), and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, Super Dark Times (2017), keep it front and center — up to a point. For perhaps four-fifths of its running time, The Night House works beautifully, with the mystery of Owen’s seeming survival past death working in concert with the thematic elements in play, all anchored by a fantastic performance from Rebecca Hall.
Good horror actually asks a lot of an actor, and if a film is going to grapple with the emotional and intellectual implications of its supernatural conceits, it can really put a performer through the wringer. Here, Hall is up for the challenge of carrying the film, delivering a performance that is occasionally big — grief goes big sometimes, folks, and at odd times — but always layered, complex, shaded. Beth is an atheist, absolutely convinced there is no soul that survives mortal existence, and so her grieving is complicated by the possibility — increasingly probable as the film progresses — that she’s wrong and that some part of Owen still exists. Is that something to be hoped for? Or feared?
Bruckner’s direction is quiet, which is welcome. Even his jump scares — and there are a few — are understated by the standards of the modern genre rank and file, the director instead putting the focus on the careful construction of atmosphere, the layering in of growing unease.
In terms of aesthetic design, we might call The Night House Aspirational Gothic. The house that Owen built for Beth is beautiful, and while it is remote and hemmed in by the woods and the lake, these elements aren’t threatening, right up until they are. Naturally, the woods hold secrets, perhaps also kept by kindly neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall), whose concern about Beth’s wellbeing may or may not be altruistic. Of course, the house is haunted (literally or metaphorically?), but it’s no Backlot Gothic manor. Still, as the plot unfolds and we, the audience, get a better sense of who Owen was, its modern lines and catalog-rustic décor take on a sinister affect. A house can be a cage if you don’t hold the key, and while Beth yet lives there, it was Owen who built it.
Unfortunately, as the film moves to explain what’s actually going on in its final act, the perceived need to nail down a concrete plot progression sees the film’s careful thematic progression largely abandoned and to no great effect. I can’t, in good conscience, give the game away, but it’s a frustrating experience to see a film doing so well, to be genuinely making a play for Modern Classic status, only to stumble in the final act. It’s not a dealbreaker — everything up to that point is so great, it would take a deliberately perverse act of willful subversion to sink the ship — and the technical excellence we’ve seen so far remains in play, but The Night House’s climax and resolution simply cannot live up to what has gone before. As a result, we have two-thirds of a great film awkwardly welded to the climax of a mediocre one. The Night House is pretty good, but it galls to know that it is so very nearly great.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson