Film Review – Things Heard & Seen
Things Heard & Seen
There are two stories happening in Things Heard & Seen (2021). I wonder if they would have worked better as separate films instead of juxtaposed together. Written and directed by the husband/wife duo of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (based off Elizabeth Brundage’s novel, All Things Cease to Appear), we are given a mysterious haunted house tale as well as an examination of a marriage falling apart. And while both have strong qualities, neither add up to a satisfying conclusion. The fact that they are taking place simultaneously, eventually colliding together, only works to highlight its shortcomings. This is two thirds of a decent movie, and one third of a bad one.
Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) and George (James Norton) are a married couple whom – along with their daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger) – move out to the New York countryside where George has accepted a job as an art teacher. Both Catherine and George come from artistic backgrounds, but the demands of marriage and parenthood has forced them to put their dreams to the side. They settle into a large homestead overlooking vast farmlands. While things appear to be going well for them, we soon start seeing the cracks emerge. Catherine is suffering from an eating disorder, and George finds himself tempted by the young female students on campus. To make matters even more complicated, strange occurrences start happening in their home, hinting that a supernatural presence is residing with them.
The ghost story is the weaker of the two story arcs, although the execution does have some nice touches. The direction and cinematography (Larry Smith) build tension with old school methods – lights flickering, a radio turning on and off, etc. In other movies, when a ghost is revealed, they’re accompanied by a loud sound effect to ramp up the jump scare. Here, it’s done more subtly, and as a result comes off as creepier. The ghost will be placed in the background of a scene with no sound at all, causing us to wonder if we actually did see it. The problem is that all of the spiritual events don’t seem to add up to much at all, especially when compared to the relationship drama happening alongside it.
The dynamic between Catherine and George has a strong emotional current, and both Seyfried and Norton provide good performances to support it. Seyfried, with her large eyes and expressive face, communicates Catherine’s growing frustrations with George as their bond starts to unravel. She increasingly feels isolated, giving up much of herself for her family and not seeing George return the same. But she also has a determination that doesn’t allow her to just be the subservient wife. After her immediate fright once discovering the phantoms in her home, Catherine soon grows to feel for them. With the help of Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham) – who works at the same school at George – Catherine starts to dig deeper into the mystery in hopes of setting the ghosts free.
George is a tricky character to pull off, but Norton finds the right balance between charm and repulsiveness that prevents us from completely recoiling from him. The character is a liar, a narcissist, and is unfaithful. He brushes off Catherine’s worries as symptoms of her medical issues, thinking that medication and a healthy diet will fix her problems. He pursues a student (Natalia Dyer) while ignoring her obvious signs to back off. But Norton adds dimension to the George by making him amiable. He is friendly, can keep up a good conversation, and quickly becomes popular on campus. We often see George flashing a bright smile, giving off a “Gee Golly” attitude as though he grew up watching Leave It to Beaver. But that’s what makes him so dangerous. He believes that because he is so likeable, that he can get away with just about anything.
Norton and Seyfried are excellent together, and the way their characters push and pull against one another makes for a compelling watch. It’s a disappointment that everything they accomplish crumbles once the narrative enters the third act. The final section is – frankly – a mess, with the relationship drama and ghost story colliding into a splatter of incoherency. We see things coming from a distance, we know things will not end well for one if not all of the characters. The problem is that the writing and direction meanders to find an ending. When it isn’t able to wrap things up in an adequate way, it abruptly ends in midsentence. We are left with loose threads hanging all around us, with questions that haven’t been addressed.
Watching Things Heard & Seen is like watching a plane roll down a runway without ever taking off. All the parts are there to make it work and we sit in anticipation of it going to that next level, but for some reason it just never gets there.