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Pretty on the surface, 'They Remain' is not anywhere near as depth-plumbing as it believes it is.

Film

‘They Remain’ is a Contemplative, Cold Experience

Pretty on the surface, ‘They Remain’ is not anywhere near as depth-plumbing as it believes it is.

They Remain introduces itself with few answers and a lot of questions, which it slowly confronts throughout its runtime. That approach echoes its protagonist, Keith (William Jackson Harper), and his lack of understanding of what’s happening on a months-long scientific expedition. Partnered with Jessica (Rebecca Henderson), the two are stationed on the former grounds of a cult to examine the environment and see if there is any connection between the location and the people who joined.

Psychedelic visuals, a trippy score, and very contemplative pacing indicate director Philip Gelatt as someone with a great handling of microcosmic tension; this single setting of a forest with a couple patches of open space plays host to many of Keith’s contemplations on what happened in this forest, and ultimately what is happening to him psychologically. Much of They Remain leans on Harper’s performance, as he wrestles with so many questions aimed at him from both his circumstances and his partner.

When a film is so deliberately paced, it is jarring to see a sudden amount of exposition introduced, but this is a frequent problem with They Remain. Jessica launches questions for Keith to contemplate, but she also serves as an exposition machine during the entire first half of the film. Her dialog is less about the secrets she’s harboring from Keith, and more about why the two are even there in the first place. It becomes tiring to see a character relegated to just spewing information about the history of the cult and the mission they’re on when the rest of the film feels so assured in its dissemination of info.

There’s a glacial pacing that works in Gelatt’s favor, putting more of the weight on Sean Kirby’s cinematography and Harper’s performance, but Henderson’s Jessica speeds things up and unfortunately hurts the film. Her performance is also less contemplative and more direct, which compounds the incongruity of the pacing. There’s an underlying chaos to be discovered that is accentuated by Kirby’s eye for nature, one that comes to the surface whenever Jessica talks, as she’s just adding further confusion to the doubts festering in Keith’s head. It works from a narrative standpoint, but it breaks the momentum.

For a movie like this, it’s clear how important uneasiness factors into They Remain. A clean, almost-science-fiction aesthetic combines with nature to provide that unrest. Is there something more at play in this environment? Characters question it throughout the film, but much of the burden is left with the audience, which is compelling but feels ultimately fruitless. While the ending pays off with a subdued chaos, They Remain hinges itself on its aesthetic properties and how they sink into the foreground of our minds. To that end, Keith is a lot like an audience surrogate, but there’s some link between the two that is absent; it’s what leaves the film more cold than introspective.

The end feels as if one is falling down a rabbit hole that seems to be going somewhere, but not somewhere palpable. The film reaches for an emotion unattainable by the audience because it’s never truly there. That’s the coldness of They Remain. While a pretty, with a character that is clearly wrestling with some doubts, the movie latches onto contemplation as a driving force. Keith stares into the woods unaware of the torment subtly creeping towards him; that is interesting as a feeling, but it’s not one that can sustain the film’s runtime, or even much interest.

They Remain ultimately results in a few dichotomies. Where William Jackson Harper shines, Rebecca Henderson’s performance and character to be flat. While the story does reach a conclusion that satisfies, it only satisfies in its atmospheric intentions. Pretty on the surface, They Remain is not anywhere near as depth-plumbing as it believes it is.

Written By

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Victoria, British Columbia. Given a pint, he will talk for days about action films, video games, and the works of John Carpenter.

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