There is something to be said about wasted potential, especially when taking a book and pairing it down to its most essential contents. While Elizabeth Brundage’s All Things Cease to Appear has various interweaving plot points crossing decades of time, filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman aimed to streamline the story. THINGS HEARD & SEEN could have been a film that discussed the cyclic generational violence directed towards women. It could have, perhaps, tackled how that violence impacts children, as there are beats in the film that do focus on the children who once occupied the house. Unfortunately, what audiences will get is a fairly predictable story of an insecure, psychopathic man destroying everything he touches, but with an ending that is less of a conclusion and more a story that has just trailed off into a dead-end without any actual resolution.
Upon the completion of his Ph.D., George Clare (James Norton, Little Women) lands a job teaching at a private college located in the upstate Hudson Valley area. Talented art restorer and wife, Catherine (Amanda Seyfried, Mank) reluctantly leaves everything (mind behind in Manhattan to relocate the family to the remote town of Chosen. There is an expectation for her to assimilate and repeated micro-aggressions flung her way, many of which stem from George’s obvious insecurity over Catherine’s innate natural talent. Despite all her efforts to restore the new home, previously an old dairy farm, and find responsible caretakers to watch over her young daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger), Catherine is struggling. She is friendless, isolated, alone, with George’s attempts to make her happy feeling hollow at best.
The more Catherine lingers in her new home, the more she starts to sense that something may be there. As she begins to do further research on the house’s former occupants, with the encouragement of those who meet her through George, she begins to unravel information that may point to something far more sinister at play. And, while part of the intrigue in this movie is in its dabbling in the supernatural, the true sinister happenings surrounding a rapidly dissolving marriage that will have devastating consequences for all involved in the end. It’s just, by the time we get to that end, there will be much frustration for the viewer.
Right off the bat, the audience is thrown into the fray at the height of the film’s plot. This decision so early on has the impact of being polarizing depending on the individual viewer. Arguably, that is a note that is applicable to a great bulk of the THINGS HEARD & SEEN, which gets weighed down by some of the storytelling choices Pulcini and Springer Berman make in the screenplay. This is most apparent in the film’s third act which, after spending the emphasis of the film focusing on the relationship between Catherine and George, pivots hard to more heavy-handed supernatural explorations with no real justification. Truly, it is in the final act that viewer frustration is guaranteed to intensify.
One element that viewers will find themselves glued together, in this reviewer’s opinion, is how well Seyfried and Norton deliver their performances and sell the dynamic of toxicity between the Clares. Though, the relationship itself carries far too many predictable beats on paper, Catherine’s descent into hallucinatory delusion as she aims to uncover the secrets of her new home is sold well by Seyfried. Even as her character Catherine becomes the whipping post for Norton’s horrendously mediocre, insecure character, George, Seyfried’s performance is grounded in a reality that hits home at certain moments. She is earnest in what she does as she tries to make sense of everything around her and, by the climax, it’ll be hard not to believe Catherine is the heart and soul of THINGS HEARD & SEEN.
While Seyfried’s Catherine and Norton’s George feel fleshed out on paper and onscreen, the same cannot be said by the supporting cast in THINGS HEARD & SEEN. Many of the characters featured in the film read as one-dimensional and, try as the cast might, their performances can’t hide the superficiality of what is written in the script. F. Murray Abraham’s Floyd DeBeers reads as being included to explain the thematic material the screenplay is trying to get across, quoting Emanuel Swedenborg throughout to hammer the point home to viewers that there is an afterlife. Rhea Seehorn’s Justine, a teacher at George’s school, is also utilized to provide exposition and pose a challenge to George. Other than that, though, there is only so much that Seehorn can do to elevate the character off the page. These are but a couple of examples, but they are far from the only ones this reviewer could refer to in making the point.
There are other elements of the script, as mentioned earlier, that will be left up to the debate of the viewer as to whether or not included elements work or not. For example, the first scene featuring Catherine blatantly lays out that she has an eating disorder. While some might find it necessary, this reviewer sees it as the character’s way of exerting control where, perhaps, she might feel none. Given how isolated and alone the character is portrayed on screen, it made sense. Though, the continued reference throughout lends itself to the idea that Pulcini and Springer Berman don’t trust their viewers. The lack of trust seems present as well in the continuous references to Swedenborg’s afterlife down to the very end of THINGS HEARD & SEEN.
The inclusion of supernatural elements, initially, aids in gaslighting the audience into disbelieving Catherine, much like George has worked so hard to do in THINGS HEARD & SEEN. It is easy to brush it off as a woman trying to make sense of her life, to cease control in whatever way she can even if she has to imagine it. While a familiar enough trope (Rebecca, Gaslight, The Haunting of Bly Manor, etc), it provides something interesting for the audience. It also gives the movie more heft. However, upon the revelation that there is something supernatural going on, after all, the execution left little to be desired. And, the inclusion and execution of this plot element pushed the film into overly dramatic territory, but in a cheap way.
Overall, THINGS HEARD & SEEN is puzzling in the sense that, when it comes to the overall story, this reviewer is unsure whether or not trying to render the story as simply as possible worked in Pulcini’s and Springer Berman’s favor. As the credits rolled, there was confusion. There did not appear to be a resolution. While this reviewer could brush it off the lack of resolution as a note to how these incidents are handled in real life, that would be giving too much credit where credit is due. It’s difficult, though, not to feel cheated in a way. Despite the hard work put into the film by the cast, the screenplay and execution of it greatly undermined any sort of payoff that the viewer could have. That is the most significant detriment of this film.
THINGS HEARD & SEEN is now available exclusively on Netflix. All images courtesy of Netflix.