“You know how this is going to end,” a character portentously intones to no one in particular at the start of “They Remain,” writer-director Philip Gelatt’s ponderously moody suspense drama about scientific researchers who may or may not fall under the influence of supernatural forces while observing flora and fauna in a remote woodland area.
Unfortunately, those words prove to be less of a cryptic warning than a blunt appraisal. After enduring the first 10 minutes or so this pretentious twaddle, anyone with previous exposure to similarly affected slow-burn thrillers will know they’re destined for a long onslaught of murky symbolism, stilted dialogue, mannered performances, and brain-fogging confusion, leading to a conclusion that is satisfying only because it signals the termination of an enervating journey. In short: “They Remain” is a movie that lives down to your worst expectations.
Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) and Keith (William Jackson Harper) are the scientists assigned to an isolated stretch of countryside by a mysterious corporation identified only by its triangular corporate logo. It’s not immediately clear just what they’re supposed to be looking for as they gaze intently at their computer screens and monitor live feeds from heat- and motion-activated cameras that Keith places throughout the area. But their frustration increases incrementally as they realize the cameras or the computer screens, or both, are not functioning properly. Maybe someone or something is messing with the system? Or perhaps — and, no kidding, this explanation is floated as a distinct possibility — the problem is incompetence on the part of the scientists.
Early on, Keith is creeped out to learn the locale where they’ve been contracted to spend three months was the home base for a Charles Manson-style cult that, not so long ago, was responsible for a thrill-kill slaughter known as the Pleasant Valley Massacre. (Jessica, it should be noted, knows quite a lot about this notorious event.) And his discomfort builds when he and Jessica are told that, more recently, a CSI team was assigned to investigate the area for signs of other victims — but ended the search prematurely after the team leader inexplicably went psycho and turned against his confederates.
Jessica is the first to demonstrate signs of paranoia, claiming to hear knocking on their high-tech tent headquarters while Keith is out checking the cameras. But Keith is the one troubled by dreams of cultists cavorting and killing, and soon starts to have even more disturbing visions while fully awake. (At least, he thinks he’s awake.) The brittle give-and-take between the scientists gives way to scenes charged by turns with barely contained hostility and sexual tension.
“Look at you,” Jessica says mockingly after Keith returns from an especially unsettling reconnaissance. “”You’re as weak as a kitten.” “Don’t worry about me,” he responds, adding, not altogether convincingly, “I’m as fit as a farmhand.” This exchange, like many others in “They Remain,” is delivered in a flat, affectless style that may be intended to intensity the suspense, but actually comes off as inadvertently hilarious. Try to imagine the verbal byplay in a third-rate production of a lesser Harold Pinter play, and you’ll be prepared for what’s in store here.
Based on a novella by Laird Barron, “They Remain” devolves from inscrutability to incoherence at a laborious pace as Gellat repeatedly blurs the lines between objective reality and feverish hallucination until it’s difficult to tell the difference, and even harder to care. Cinematographer Sean Kirby occasionally snaps us back to attention with striking visuals — most notably, an extended shot in which he frames Harper in the lower right-hand corner of the screen while surrounded by greenery. Indeed, Kirby almost single-handedly encourages the audience to keep watching long after the urge to bail on the movie becomes well-nigh irresistible. Tom Keohane provides an appropriately spooky musical score, but that doesn’t help quite as much.