Starring William Harper Jackson and Rebecca Henderson, They Remain is about two scientists that are helicoptered into a remote location to study strange animal behavior and environmental changes where a Manson-style cult had committed a brutal atrocity. Director Philip Gelatt weaves themes of paganism, sci-fi, and horror into a dread-filled and beautifully shot film. It’s an effective slow burn thriller that works on every level, to a point.
At a run time of one hour and forty minutes (which I don’t think is too long), They Remain will try the patience of some viewers with its long shots of trees, of Jackson walking through the trees, and short exchanges between Jackson and Henderson that barely progress the story. Gelatt, who adapted the film from the short story “-30-” by Laird Barron, reminds me a bit of Ti West with his artistically rich shots and steady hand with building tension. What doesn’t work is the fact that the story is just too thin and lacks enough payoff to justify its run length. We could lose nearly half an hour and still get the dread and evolution of Jackson’s character, while becoming emotionally invested in their mission.
We’re only with Henderson when Jackson is; for the entire duration of the film we are his shadow, and only learn through conversation that Henderson is having weird experiences on her own. Meanwhile, we descend down the rabbit hole of paranoia and fear with Jackson, which is riveting, but I can’t help but feel like we are being cheated by not seeing Henderson’s evolution in the 3+ months of the mission’s run time. Even as a critic, I never want to arm-chair direct a film. I like to stick to the facts and highlight the positives as much as possible, and the positives are many. This is my kind of movie-weird, dripping with atmosphere, but when the film ended and the credits rolled I sat back and asked, “why?”
The ending sinks the film for me. It’s one thing for a film to end and leave things up for interpretation, but They Remain has an anti-ending. It’s an arbitrary one, where really nothing is resolved, at least not on any satisfactory level. The middle of the movie is filled with haunting images, hinting at creepy, fucked up things to come, but these are nowhere to be seen when the credits roll, and nothing makes sense.
The press release promised “a path of doom where primeval forces threaten to consume them.” After a slow lead up we got a taste of that, but it fizzles out long before we fade to black. They Remain just premiered at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival on October 7 and will hit theaters later this fall. We’ll see if it finds an audience then, as I’m willing to acknowledge the fact that it might well work for others where it it didn’t work for me. After all, art is subjective and we all bring differing tastes, perspectives, and moods to the table. Frankly though, I think everyone in front of and behind the camera all deserved to be in either a better movie, or at least a movie with a stronger, more visceral ending that felt more like a pay off.