Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 28th, 2021
Things Heard & Seen (Shari Springer Berman/Robert Pulcini, 2021) 1 out of 4 stars.
There is much ado about something in the rural, upstate New York community surrounding Saginaw College, a small, liberal arts institution ostensibly nestled away from the world’s real problems. Unfortunately, every location, no matter how remote (or perhaps, especially if remote) has its own secrets, and so when the Claire family moves there from the Big Apple so that paterfamilias George can start a new professorship, the past intrudes on the present in ways most unpleasant for all involved.
It turns out the present also its own share of mystery, however, and so multiple eras collide in a supernatural mix of spiritual and prosaic murder. Rich in atmosphere if not narrative cohesion, Things Heard & Seen, written and directed by the wife-and-husband team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (10,000 Saints) and based on Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 novel All Things Cease to Appear, never quite lives up to its cinematic potential. Still, stars Amanda Seyfried (Mank) and James Norton (Mr. Jones) give it quite the go, and whatever onscreen failings we see are not for their lack of trying.
Among a plethora of topics (part of the problem, there are so many), the film is about male gaslighting; a timely issue, for sure. It’s just too bad that the evil lurking at the center of the story looms as obvious as it does. The character who quickly turns sour has very little development; one minute he appears one way, the next quite differently, and from that point forward, he is forever contemptible. As a result, it’s hard to latch onto any emotional connection to follow the horror of what happens. For horror there is, of the Gothic variety, with ghosts, seances and even a bloody axe.
There is also plenty of academic politics and sexual misbehavior, along with an attempt to laud nascent female agency (the time is 1980, towards the end of second-wave feminism). Add in some child endangerment and all we really need is the kitchen sink. Seyfried effortlessly holds our attention, and along with costars Natalia Dyer (Yes, God, Yes), Rhea Seehorn (AMC’s Better Call Saul) and F. Murray Abraham (The Grand Budapest Hotel), among others, provides enough charm to (mostly) keep us watching.
The directors do a fine job with camera, composition and lighting; it’s the drama that gets away from them. Given that the movie opens with the ending, before cycling back to the narrative beginning, there is also no suspense about how things conclude. All may be heard and seen, but holds very little meaning.