“There is a good movie there, somewhere.” There are some movies that you watch and you just know it to be true—there’s a good movie there, somewhere—but it isn’t the movie as it’s been presented. The good movie, the one that you wish you were watching, is hidden; it’s buried somewhere inside what you’re watching. Sometimes you know exactly from where the disappoints stems, and sometimes it’s harder to find. In the case of “Things Heard & Seen,” which is written and directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (based on the novel “All Things Cease to Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage), it’s the latter.
Starring Amanda Seyfried and James Norton as Catherine and George Claire, this movie finds a family (they have a young daughter, Franny, played by Ana Sophia Heger) moving to upstate New York so that George can teach at a small college. There are strange goings on at the house, which has a bloody history; there’s weird doings in the town itself, and maybe the wonderful marriage between Catherine and George isn’t so great. As the movie progresses, things devolve in a number of areas and there’s some sense of discomfort trying to figure out whether we are supposed to understand all these disparate elements as being tied together or just dumb luck. One gets the “Gremlins 2” sense about how if “you make a place for things… things come,” but the connective tissue isn’t strong enough to hold all the various aspects of the story together.
It is Seyfried who is at the relatable center of the tale more than Norton, and she is great giving us this character who slowly spins out over the course of the film. Catherine is a woman unmoored by this great life change (and was, perhaps, losing those moorings even before they left the city). Her delving into the history of their house and trying to make friends in a new place that she isn’t sure is for her, is perfect. Watching Catherine go from the regular sort of questions to the supernatural ones is perhaps the best thing the movie has to offer.
George is certainly centered in things, but far less relatable. There is a constant question one has to ask watching the movie about how he can possibly get away with such awful behavior. It couldn’t have been acceptable even in the late-’70s/early-’80s and it is fantastic when he is called on it by Justine (Rhea Seehorn), a work colleague of his and friend to Catherine.
Perhaps the problem, to some extent, is an abundance of riches. There are so many potential avenues for the story to go down that it isn’t quite sure which path to explore. The question in this instance is whether the book (a format sometimes more amenable to such storytelling) goes down all of them. There are feints about which road the movie will travel, and in the end it doesn’t fully investigate any of them.
This last notion is enhanced by the fact that Catherine has some sort of eating issue (presumably bulimia) that is clearly important and not examined; that there’s repeated mention of a scientist/mystic named Emanuel Swedenbourg that could be completely excised from the story without changing much to the overall tale; that this Swedenbourg ties into the Hudson River School of artists in some way that, too, isn’t really nailed down in convincing fashion. It isn’t that the audience can’t connect the dots with any of these things, or that they’re not fascinating, it’s much more that they are ideas tossed out into the ether by characters in the movie and then just left there.
Other elements of the film work less well. There’s stuff like Catherine and George driving over the George Washington Bridge to get to upstate New York—which might be excusable if they’re either going the long way or are aware of huge traffic snarls, but those feel unlikely—and the fact that early December 1980 is referred to as “Winter, 1980,” when it’s still fall. Those are both minor things, true, but they’re a part of a larger sense one gets watching the movie, a sense that things don’t all quite add up correctly, that we’re missing some information, which, again, perhaps is in the book.
There is a great movie here, somewhere. It is dark and creepy and has these big ideas all made very personal. “Things Heard & Seen” tiptoes around them. Yes, if you stop and pull apart what happens in the movie, you can point to moments that show you the various aspects of all the various pieces—the haunted house, the lies of a marriage, the wants of the kids who used to live in the house, the ways in which George has hidden his nature for years, etc.—but in having to stop and pull it all apart, the sense of the film as a whole is lost.
It is a shame because the cast, which also includes Karen Allen, F. Murray Abraham, Alex Neustaedter, and Jack Gore are all quite good. It is a shame because some of the ghostly imagery is excellent. It is a shame because the town is clearly full of great characters who have lives of their own that may or may not be tied back into this house, and which are not shown. It is a shame because one watches and so desperately wants more than the movie seems willing to give.
“Things Heard & Seen” does a tremendous job with atmosphere, establishing the parameters of a ghost story combined with a psychological thriller, and giving it a real sense of place and people. What it doesn’t do is live up to the promise of all those elements. There’s a good movie in there, somewhere, but the one on screen is just okay.
photo credit: Netflix