Monday 24 January 2022

The Night House

I wish that you were here. I wish that it was morning.

In an interview with Vogue, Rebecca Hall, who plays main character Beth in David Bruckner’s The Night House (and gives as singular a performance as she did in Christine), says that “there’s an entire read of the movie that is just about Beth’s psychological breakdown and coming out on the other side and processing that”. You can watch Beth from the outside, from the perspective of her best friend Claire (a great Sarah Goldberg), and see a widow struggling with the sudden and unexpected suicide of her husband of 14 years, and see her psychological suffering, the way her desperate search for answers that leads her to realise she didn’t know Owen that well skews her grasp on reality. For one, she doesn’t react the way she is expected to – there is only one traditional scene of grief-stricken breakdown, late in the film, and before that, her approach to her loss is closer to anger. She doesn’t understand why Owen died, and she slowly begins to realise that she doesn’t know Owen when she finds traces of a whole secret life in what he’s left behind. Claire sees Beth becoming increasingly more erratic, making plans to move out of the house he designed and built and then never committing, sharing theories about depression and sleepwalking being infectious somehow, transmitted between partners, and finally receives a frantic late-night message that leads her to the house in the morning, to a last-minute rescue of a deeply distressed Beth out on the lake, in the same boat her husband killed himself in, holding a gun. Claire never sees what Beth does – her hauntings are unwitnessed, her horrifying discoveries unshared. 

But The Night House is a keenly observed study of Beth in the aftermath of Owen’s death. It begins the day of the funeral, when Beth returns to their home by the lake and sends an unnamed relative away so she can be alone with her grief. She takes the offered casserole, enters the house, closes the door, and the sounds and sights of the house (a ticking clock, the ever-present lake through the many windows) envelop her immediately. This is a story about her and the house Owen built with his own hands. It is an empty, large house, objectively beautiful, but also soon, in its emptiness, overwhelming even before weird things begin to happen. 

In the early morning hours, the stereo goes off to play their wedding song. On the pier, bloodied footsteps appear, and a gunshot rings out somewhere in the woods surrounding the lake. Beth discovers impossible drawings in a sketch book she has given her husband, of mazes and inverted houses, architectural designs that cannot exist in reality. Powered by a case of brandy (a glass of it becoming a fixture in the film), she finds occult books – about Welsh Caerdroia, labyrinths designed to perform rituals or capture evil spirits, heavily annotated by Owen. She dreams vividly of receiving messages from him in the middle of the night, only to find them disappeared in the morning, but finds photos of a woman on his phone that look similar to her, but on closer inspection, are of a stranger. All of those mysteries pile up, and are overshadowed by the ominous letter he left her, in an envelope now stained with blood - “You were right. There is nothing, nothing after you. You are safe.” 

It is the idea of nothing that literally haunts this film and Beth. She recounts to her friend Claire what her interpretation of the note is: that when she was 17, she had a near-death experience that left her with the knowledge that there is nothing after death, only an absence, the only thing she and her husband never agreed on. She believes that maybe her husband caught her depression, that maybe in realising she was right, he couldn’t survive. Maybe the presence she feels in the house isn’t an evil spirit – early on, she caresses the pillow on his side of the bed, the absence of him in this house that contains so much of him, and a colleague suggests that after sharing a space so long, it must feel like he is still there. And maybe, in her attempts to unravel the riddle that was left to her, she hopes to find Owen again – but it only leads her into horror. Geometrical shapes in the house turn into the outline of a man that disappears when she takes a step (what a befitting haunting in the house of an architect, optical illusions created by interior design), a trip into the woods leads her to a horrible version of her home, an unfinished skeleton of a house. A neighbour, concerned about her, finally admits that he once saw Owen go there with a woman who looked like her but wasn’t her, and a trip to the bookstore that sold him the occult books leads her to a woman who looks similar to her but not quite like her (Stacy Martin), who admits to having a non-consummated affair with Owen – a story that takes a dark turn once she reveals the entirety of it. One day, he took her to the anti-house in the woods and began choking her before she asked him to stop. On his laptop, she finds so many more pictures of other women, all with dark hair, all strangers to her. 

There are moments in the Night House that feel like Olivier Assayas’ ghost story Personal Shopper, in which a grief-stricken Kristen Stewart attempts to contact the ghost of her dead brother – like the presence of Owen, the gentle voice she hears whispering to her, could be benevolent, a promise of something that fills the emptiness and provides closure. This idea collapses entirely once Beth discovers what is hidden under the floorboards in her husband’s secret house – the bodies of women who look like her, wrapped in plastic. Grief opens the door into a mirror world (literally – house numbers and digital clocks are backwards), in which Beth observes her husband murdering these women, and the voice she has been hearing reveals that it isn’t Owen after all, but a malignant presence eager to reclaim her after she narrowly escaped death in her youth. This is another haunted house story where it isn’t the house that is haunted after all, but the people living in it, and as Beth theorised, her haunting has infected her husband, trying to reclaim her through him. Owen went mad over the whispered demands of his wife’s life – what looks on the surface like a classic tale of an unknown husband secretly conducting affairs instead turns into a tale of a man desperately trying to find ways to trick an evil spirit into a mirror version of their life, in the other house, each of the dead women just similar enough to Beth to maybe, at a glance, pass for her.

This nothing – an absence with evil intentions, has not been banished by Owen’s sacrifice. It almost reclaims Beth at the end, almost drives her to suicide, but the message she leaves Claire before the horror escalates – when Beth finally commits to leaving, but isn’t allowed to - saves her in the end. Claire arrives, and it is morning. Maybe, when she says earlier in the film that she loves her, it is a saving promise, a tentative possibility of emerging from horror and grief like they both do from the lake after Claire swims out to her to rescue her. The film leaves her there at the pier, but the reflection on the water flickers into the outline of a man. 

2020, directed by David Bruckner, starring Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Evan Jonigkeit, Stacy Martin. 

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