Gracing the screen like a dove floating in the water on a normally consistent level, Rebecca Hall has proven her knack to lift a character beyond the page, make it greater than the scenario around her, going as far back as The Prestige. Even when the film overall landed short of the bullseye (think The BFG and Transcendence), her very presence elevated its focus just right. It should be considered a crime how she hasn’t been cast in more leading roles working toward both her strengths and genre flexibility. With The Night House, she comfortably succeeds in both, returning to the horror/suspense sphere in a dark, quiet piece of quilted tension. The kind of quilt destined to unravel, fabric by fabric as more of the inner mystery is revealed.
Hall portrays the nervy Beth, an elementary school teacher in the middle of a personal hell. Grieving from the loss of her architect husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), she struggles to cope inside the luxurious lakeside home he’d built for them. A very sudden death she’d never prepared for, the threads of impossible closure negate her well-being. In her distraught state, she can suddenly sense Owen’s presence like a specter without any visibility, haunting their home. Her curiosity ultimately reaches a fervorous point, unlocking a hidden dark side Owen left buried. So much she had never anticipated in living, much to address that couldn’t have been until the point of death.
For director David Bruckner (The Ritual), this effort is not a significant departure from his usual shtick, crafting suspenseful yarns bordering on the psychological and puzzling, determined not to skate towards indecipherable. We stop short of that, as our character study embraces its tension, coupled with a fair amount of intellect. A razor-sharp script from Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times) does more than necessary to distance away from merely rolling with motions. Its fractured heart suddenly appears real amid the hokey touches behind Owen’s ghostly presence.
Hijacking the expensive stereo system, haunting Beth’s dreams, clues in the house blueprints, and extreme use of Apple products propelling a combing of hidden photo galleries. In less capable hands, none of these touches would carry much of a sinister, or nerve-wracking response. Bruckner challenges the mundane to be mysterious, and the already mysterious to move with an acute rapidity. Once these two separate modes are built, it’s easy enough to intersect them when appropriate.
In that brisk mode of mystery, it’s the deepest element of Beth’s psyche, melting down to the raw nerve while coming to terms with Owen’s hidden truths, weirdly immortalized by the discovery of an off-putting voodoo doll inciting elements of the macabre. Whilst in the mundane, we see Beth doing her best to cope with tragedy, while still on the job, and continuing to make casual small talk with close friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and next-door neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall). She continues to pop from the seams, any manner of reason escaping her clouded, perhaps sleep-deprived mind.
The Night House is as much a provoking analysis on the darkness in marriage as it is a straightforward thriller, stepping in familiar, yet invitingly unclear directions. Done expertly with a singular character exercising a balance between both ends of a wider gamut. Miss Hall has only further proven her nimble prowess to walk along such a thematic tightrope without losing her footing. Here, it only strengthens as Bruckner builds up the stakes; those enigmatic taps do begin early enough to stamp down any tonality concerns. Hall’s the kind of actress to not just walk, but certainly, run from A to B and sell an audience on a character, without hesitancy or skittishness. Even as Beth moves along with a stubborn confusion and an infrequent hairpin rage trigger, both real factors of a mind bogged down by anguish, Hall doesn’t miss a single beat. She immediately adopts that fragile framework to deliver one of her most complex, captivating performances to date. With a track record showing mostly wins over losses, this is a crown jewel.
With aesthetics firm in hand from the camera skill of DoP Elisha Christian (Columbus), and an alarmingly pleasing musical influence by composer Ben Lovett (The Wolf of Snow Hollow), it was quite easy, convincingly so, to be swept up by Bruckner’s laser precision in sharing a dark tale of love on the rocks, and mishandled grief. The Night House has no trouble in creeping towards near-farcical with its beats.
Bruckner’s approach, Collins and Piotrowski’s broad concept, and Hall’s winning lead performance are all effort enough to skim below that line and maintain a given seriousness against a scenario that would be nowhere near realistic. None of them needed to go the extra mile to keep the suspense buoyant and the pain of loss genuine. Though, in the grand scheme of mild summer horrors where the difference between quality and inferiority is settled by mere directorial viewpoint, it’s rather welcome to see they did just that. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Night House opens only in theaters August 20; rated R for some violence/disturbing images, and language including some sexual references; 107 minutes.