Things Heard and Seen is good, actually. I don’t know if people are simply unprepared for reckoning with the fact that, if you live with ghosts and a gaslighter, the abuser is still the most dangerous thing in your house, or if this is another instance of modern audiences having been infantilized with jump scare horror pablum to the point that slow burns are impenetrable, but don’t believe the backlash. Maybe I should know better by now than to wonder why a film like Things Heard and Seen is treated with so much derision by the general public, resulting in largely negative reviews of both the professional and armchair variety. I suppose that derivativity, like beauty, must be in the eye of the beholder, especially when one of the negative reviews that I read had to stretch all the way back to What Lies Beneath to find something specific to which Heard and Seen could be compared (negatively, and illegitimately I think). There were a few writers I saw who also felt a little bit of a connection to The Shining as well, which is practically unavoidable given its subject matter, but the film also seems to be doing some of that intentionally, given its 1980 setting and its snowy conclusion. Overall, this felt fresh to me in a way that apparently it did not to others.
Successful art restorer Catherine Clare (Amanda Seyfried) lives in Manhattan with her husband George (James Norton) and daughter Fanny. George was once a painter of no small talent and has recently finished his dissertation. At Fanny’s birthday party, the couple share the news with their family and friends that they are moving to upstate New York, where George has secured a teaching position at the fictional liberal arts college Saginaw, near the town of Chosen, also fictional, in the real Hudson Valley. We learn that George was very recently cut off financially by his parents, and that Catherine only became aware of their prior dependency once that funding source dried up. We also learn that Catherine has an eating disorder, as she generally eats a starvation diet and purges after having one bite of Fanny’s cake.
The two get set up in a beautiful, if unmaintained, farm house by real estate agent Mare Laughton (Karen Allen), and the domesticity of this life isolates Catherine pretty quickly. This isolation isn’t helped by the fact that she almost immediately begins to see evidence of a haunting in their new home: she smells phantom, inexplicable gas fumes, occasionally sees lights that seemingly have no origin, and discovers personal items of previous occupants that appear cursed at best, including a ring jammed in a window sash and an ancient Bible belonging to the house’s first owner, a man of the cloth, in which certain names have been scratched out and replaced with only the word “damned.” For his part, George immediately seems to get along with his colleagues, especially Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), the department chair who offered George the position based on his glowing letter of recommendation and his thesis on the work of Hudson Valley School founder Thomas Cole. He compliments George for the section of his thesis that pertained to Cole’s religious ideas, which were of the Spiritualist ideas that largely derived from the theological work of Emanuel Swedenborg; George shrugs off this praise, noting that Cole’s Spiritualism was the issue with which he struggled the most in the composition of his dissertation. When they meet, Catherine and DeBeers immediately hit it off, as he likewise notes that there is something in her house that George refuses to see.
Despite George’s passive controlling of Catherine’s social circle, she still manages to form relationships with a few locals and some of George’s other peers, including the Vayle brothers, college-aged Eddie (Alex Neustaedter) and younger teen Cole (Jack Gore), as well as “adjunct weaving instructor” Justine Sokolov (Rhea Seehorn, who steals the show), George’s colleague and wife of fellow instructor—and marijuana cultivator—Bran (James Urbaniak). Meanwhile, George strikes up a relationship with Willis (Natalia Dyer), an Ivy League student home from school, against her better judgment. When he decides to throw a party for his colleagues, Catherine insists (over George’s pretentious objections) that they also invite their neighbors, and it is from Marie that Catherine learns about the tragic deaths of the last couple who lived in the house, and that not only was George intentionally keeping this information from her, he also kept secret that Eddie and Cole are actually their surviving children. George’s other lies, perhaps a lifetime of them, start to unravel, and so does he, as Catherine learns from the local spiritualists that evil spirits only commune with evil people, and that the spirits she sees in the house are actually there to protect her, and that she should listen to their warnings.
There’s a lot of art discussion happening, and I’m always interested in that. There’s a little quotation that I like from video essayist and artist Lola Sebastian that I really love and think about all the time, because it articulates something that I could never express so succinctly and with such ineffably quiet brevity. She’s specifically writing about Sufjan Stevens, but her statement has much further reaching and broader implications about the importance of acknowledging the wider human experience outside of the various American pop culture meccas that we see over and over again: “Rich lives [and] big stories happen everywhere, to everyone.” George is a person who fails to see that, even a little bit, because of his obsession with being a person of status. He takes money from his parents to support the family in New York until they can’t help him any longer, and he decides that if he’s going to have to live upstate, he’ll be spending time only with those he deems fit company for a man of his standing, so only his academic colleagues and none of the family’s rural local neighbors. And given that he himself knows that he only has his position fraudulently, we know that he must be performing a constant tightrope act of delusion and self-deception. He’s a truly infuriating character, and that he can be so damned frustrating while attempting to come off as friendly and affable is a testament to a truly great performance by Norton. He effectively captures that ineffable quality of being smug but incredibly fragile, like a balloon that’s constantly threatening to burst.
This is not a movie that you can watch half-heartedly while also doomscrolling or thinking about your grocery list. It’s decompressed, but that’s the point; it creates a painting before you, giving you enough time to see every detail and every brush stroke, and peopling its landscape with fully realized characters who are as believable as if they were flesh and blood. It requires all of your attention, and if you can give it all of that, you’ll be rewarded.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond