Directors/Screenplay – Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, Based on the Novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Producers – Stephanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman, Julie Cohen & Peter Cron, Photography – Larry Smith, Music – Peter Raeburn, Visual Effects Supervisor – Chris LeDoux, Special Effects Supervisor – Johann Kunz, Makeup Effects – David Presto, Production Design – Lester Cohen. Production Company – Likely Story Productions/Second Wind Productions.
James Norton (George Claire), Amanda Seyfried (Catherine Claire), Alex Neustaedter (Eddie Vayle), Rhea Seehorn (Justine Sokolov), Natalia Dyer (Willis Howell), F. Murray Abraham (Floyd DeBeers), Jack Gore (Cole Vayle), Ana Sophia Heger (Frannie Claire), Karen Allen (Marie Laughton), Michael O’Keefe (Travis Laughton), James Urbaniak (Bram Sokolov), Cotter Smith (Tom Claire), Kristin Griffith (Audrey Claire), Emily Dorsch (Ella Vayle)
George Claire receives offer of a position as a professor at Saginaw College. He persuades his wife Catherine to leave her job as an art restorer in the city and join him, along with their daughter. They buy a house in the town of Chosen in upstate New York not far from the college and move in. Catherine suffers bulimia and George is concerned about her eating. She becomes fascinated with studying the house’s history and believes there are ghosts in the house, although George dismisses these as her imaginings. He is popular with the students and, tired of Catherine’s rebuffs, embarks on an affair with local girl Willis Howell. Catherine and others have increasing difficulty ignoring the fact that George maintains a smooth facade beneath which he is willing to lie and cheat. As the secrets he keeps start to come out, George is driven to desperation.
Things Heard & Seen was the eleventh film for the husband and wife directing partnership of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Berman and Pulcini started out making documentaries with Off the Menu The Last Days of Chazen’s (1997), The Young and the Dead (2000), Hello, He Lied and Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches (2002), before gaining wide acclaim for their mix of documentary and drama in American Splendor (2003). The success of the latter led to offers of directing fiction where they went on to make the hit of The Nanny Diaries (2007) and the subsequent likes of The Extra Man (2010), Girl Most Likely (2012) and 10,000 Saints (2018). Things Heard & Seen is adapted from the novel All Things Cease to Appear (2016) by Elizabeth Brundage.
The Hauntings and Ghost Story film is something I have started dreading having to review in the last few years. There has been a vast outpouring of such films since the early 2000s, most down the medium to low-budget end of the market. This site receives them by the bucketload. Like the zombie genre and the possession and exorcism film, it is a field where the sheer repetition of product feels as though the genre is starting to run out of fresh moves. All of the plots seem to revolve around identical storylines where a family moves into an old house; the wife (usually) is suspected of going mad when she starts seeing things; an investigation into the house’s history; before the discovery of the past reaching out into the present seeking some kind of closure for a great crime that occurred. All of the films cycle around these same plots with minimal variation.
Things Heard & Seen exists in a whole other world than most of these other ghost stories. Right out of the starting gate, it seems a ghost story that is pitched to literary and academic circles rather than the devotees of something like The Conjuring franchise. For one, a film set around the ins and outs of an English literature department where the male protagonist is an adjunct professor and his wife an art restorer seems a far remove from the regular teen protagonists or ghost hunters with cameras of many of these films. The film makes a great deal out of locating its venue in small upstate New York and getting the locations right. The ending of the film is even based around allusions to the Hudson River School of various 19th Century American landscape painters.
And predictably, the film feels quieter, more sedate in its jumps. For that matter, Berman and Pulcini seems less interested in the ghost story aspect than they do in the story of a flawed man and the effects his lies and actions have on those around him. To this extent, the film is fine when it comes to being a carefully observed character study. On the other hand, it works far less effectively as a traditional ghost story – all we get in the first hour is the hackneyed device of a dream jump and the only scare throughout is where a cloth goes flying through the room during a séance.
In actuality, the film feels more interested in the demolition of its central character than the ghost story. The last couple of years have seen a whole bunch of Evil White Men films – it as though we have entered an era that has normalised the depiction of men as villains. Thus James Norton is a liar, a cheat (on his wife, on his academic record), has inflated his self-importance, is said a number of times to be manipulative, is insensitive to his wife’s fragile mental state and bulimia, while demanding she give up her job in the city to follow him. Even his being a popular and charismatic teacher seems to be regarded with suspicion.
I don’t know – for much of the film (at least until he starts to step over the line near the end), I found Norton a somewhat sympathetic character – he is someone dealing with an emotionally closed-off wife who blames all their ills on him (and moreover doesn’t seem able to seek therapy or ask for a separation). He inflates his cv to get somewhere in life; is trying to make a new life after some unspecified scandal that wrecked his prospects; and is accused of being cocky and self-assured. At least up until the end sections, most of these seem crimes that are nothing particularly egregious. But this is a film whose primary objective has been to perform a demolition of a certain type of man. Indeed, the very end of the film would seem to be one that condemns him to Hell. I keep thinking if gender or racial roles were reversed – if the film’s invective were poured into the depiction of a wife who cheats, manipulates, has affairs and kills those in her way and gets to be swallowed up and condemned to Hell at the end – that this would almost certainly accrue protest of perpetuating an hysteric negative gender stereotype.
Certainly, it is very nice to see James Norton, a British actor who has been gaining an increasingly more high profile name, get a starring role – he gets more screen time than the top-billed Amanda Seyfried. And Seyfried is well suited to the part of the wife – she is an actress who can allow her inner emotions to play out across her porcelain face and giant wide-open eyes. This role of someone gradually falling apart seems perfectly suited to play to that bubbling inner nervous tension. Similarly also, Natalie Dyer, the find from tv’s Stranger Things (2016- ), gets to stretch her presence. (The odd thing is that while Amanda Seyfried is supposed to be the character who is bulimic, Dyer with her slender physical build is the one seems far more suited to the part).