(director/writer: Philip Gelatt; screenwriter: from the short story “–30–” by Laird Barrom; cinematographer: Sean Kirby; editor: Tom Bayne; music: Tom Keohane; cast: William Jackson Harper (Keith),  Rebecca Henderson (Jessica); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Will Battersby, Philip Gelatt, Linus Hume; Paladin Film; 2018)

“A pretentious, unfulfilling and ponderous thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A pretentious, unfulfilling and ponderous thriller by writer-director Philip Gelatt (“The Bleeding House”). It might be atmospheric and satisfactorily creepy, but what’s forgotten is to write for it a narrative that makes sense. It’s adapted from a Laird Barron short story and opens with a quote from HP Lovecraft.

Beginning in September two scientific researchers, Keith (William Jackson Harper), described by the unnamed big private company he works for as someone who never misses a beat, while the company describes his partner Jessica (Rebecca Henderson), as the obsessive type. They are brought to a vast dense forest by helicopter to begin a three-month field assignment. The company told both they were part of a “new gold rush,” but never explained what they meant by that. The suspicion both have is that it involves an experiment to exploit the biological elements in plant or animal life for profit. Keith’s job is to canvas the surrounding woods for samples, while Jessica remains in their futuristic white tent compound to analyze them.

Each day Keith places motion- and heat-activated cameras throughout the woods, but finds them inexplicably malfunctioning. They only activate when there’s seemingly nothing to film, and those recordings are of a feral-looking group of humans — but in retrospect they could be Keith’s dreams.

We learn the land explored is on the site of the legendary Pleasantville Massacre, where a hippie cult was wiped out by four killers, members of the group, who were subsequently arrested.

While Keith has nightmares unrelated to the cult group, Jessica reveals she was driven to learn everything she could about The Family and their hedonistic psychedelic lifestyle.

During long and dull stretches we see things through Keith’s eyes. He believes the isolation is making his partner paranoid, and points out that she hears knocks on the tent when he’s not there and when she gets restless goes out in the forest to find a hive of bees behaving abnormally.

Soon the steady Keith gets off his game, as his visions of the cult’s activities become more explicit. Also he has some anxious encounters with a big dog he gets on camera.

The ennui and tension build to a climax that is underwhelming and far from lucid. It’s a slow trip to find out at the last moment only what the title refers to. The “Blair Witch” like “found footage” film might be a tantalizing watch because of the good performances, fine visuals and provocative musical score, but for me it offered no reasons for taking such poppycock seriously. In the end, we’re left to grapple with the quote said by the young researcher Keith to Jessica, that “The world is large and unknowable” and furthermore  “No one ever really knows anything.” 

A scene from the horror movie They Remain