Isolation can play funny tricks on you. But then, how do you know what's just a trick of the mind, and what might be real? In Philip Gelatt's sophomore feature They Remain, two people discover hidden corners of their minds that slowly take over, corners filled with (possibly) irrational fear and hallucinations, aided by the haunted landscape and their own misgivings.
Two scientists, Keith (William Jackson Harper) and Jessica (Rebecca Henderson), are hired by a private company and sent to an isolated site once occupied by a murderous cult, to investigate reported mysterious and unusual behaviour by the local wildlife. While Jessica analyses biological samples in their makeshift lab, Keith makes daily trips into the forest to set up various cameras and replace their memory cards as needed. But as the weeks go by, Keith begins to have strange dreams and possible hallucinations, while Jessica chafes at her confinement and begins to search on her own, leading to emotional and psychological explosions from them both.
Gelatt takes minimalism to a new level, both in the exposition and in the presentation of the situation. We only find out about what is happening and why the scientists are there through a few lines of dialogue, and the activity mainly of Keith, as he wanders in the forest setting up the cameras. The score is discordant and understated, and long shots of Keith as he slides into his paranoia are both riveting and unsettling.
We don't have to be warned to know this is not going to end well, or end with everyone with alive or more or less intact. This is about the journey as oppose to the destination (this is clearly indicated in the first line of dialogue). Director of Photography Sean Kirby and composer Tom Keohane give us a visual and soundscape that is more than sufficiently eerie. We are in the subjective perspective of Keith for most of the film: like him, we increasingly cannot tell what are hallucinations and what is real, and his descent into madness becomes our descent.
Harper takes on the bulk of the work in terms of time spent with his character, and he is an excellent perspective through which we watch and learn: his Keith is intelligent, not easily prone to deception or fear, cautious as need be but with just enough understanding that there are some things that cannot be explained to lay the seeds of fear. Henderson plays Jessica as both the mystery that she is, given that we have only her word to go on about certain events, and as one of the catalysts for the possible unexplained events: her obsession with the cult's activities, even in this environment, are not normal.
The conclusion might seem a bit underwhelming at first, but like the danger that creeps up on Keith, it also brings a creeping terror that haunts as the credits role, especially in its ambiguity of the fate of the scientists. Whether there are actually ghosts in these woods, Keith unwittingly seems to become one, as if it is not the people that once inhabited and commited terrible crimes on this land that have left horrific traces, but the place itself that invites it.
They Remain will be available on VOD, On Demand, and Blu Ray on May 29th in the USA and Canada.