I counted 5 walk outs in my viewing of David Bruckner’s The Night House. Of course I have no way of knowing why they walked out, but afterwards it was fun to speculate with my viewing partner as to why. Not the film they expected? Too slow? Frustrated with the ambiguity of the working metaphor and the story? Maybe all of the above?
To be clear up front, this is a challenging watch. Much of that comes down to the Director’s intention (based on interviews I have heard) in attempting to leave its working parts slightly ambiguous so as to allow for different viewers to locate a story that fits their experience. That does leave this a bit unsettled in the moment, as, at least in my case, my own tendency was to want to locate a more concrete and overarching metaphor that could tell me clearly what the “Director” was trying to say with the story. I found that viewing the film in this way did leave me frustrated at points, wondering what kind of film this is, both thoughts that had a good deal of time to perculate as the film doesn’t rush its approach by any means.
I also can’t help but think that those walk outs missed the immensely rewarding experience of being able to sit with the film’s lingering presence in light of the bigger picture. This is where it truly comes alive. This is where the Director’s ambitions are able to take root, formulating into the story I needed to hear while awakening me to the realization that this sits in conversation with multiple other stories that this film both is and can be telling at the same time.
Before I get into spoiler territory (because this film demands spoiler conversation to make any sense of it), let me add in a few auxiliary observations. First, don’t confuse slow with a lack of intention or movement or development. Use that space to pay attention, because there are a lot of smaller details interspersed within the narrative that can help in making sense of the larger story. Also, some of the camera work here is quite exceptional. Take the time to appreciate it during your viewing. There are numerous scenes that play with perspective in some neat and highly technical ways, especially where it fits with this underlying theme of the mirror image or reversal. The ways the film achieves its scares is very effective, and comes as the result of well thought out and deeply creative sequencing and camera placement as opposed to any glossed over effects. Portions of this reflects natural filmmaking at its finest.
And shout out to Rebecca Hall who does some nice work carrying this film.
Now, on to spoilers, so SPOILER WARNING ahead.
As I mentioned above, the key to experiencing this film for what it is comes from allowing yourself to experience the film the way you need to experience it. This is by design. I had a slight heads up on what to expect in this regard from interviews, but I still wasn’t prepared. Wanting to know the Director’s intent before measuring my own experience is too tightly ingrained in my psyche to let go of that easily. In this case it was the Director’s intent to create a story that could mold itself in unique ways to the individual experience while also saying something universal about the human experience.
With this in mind, if I was to narrow this film down to something universal I would say this has to do with the nature of depression and anxiety. That lies at the heart of a story which wants to explore the different spaces that inform and form depression, and the different outcomes that can arrive from this.
I am taking a shot at my best explanation of these universals knowing that I have my own indidivual interpretation of the story in view, so keep that in mind. The best way though, again for me, to make sense of a story that fluctuates between the material and the spiritual, or for lack of a better word the natural and the supernatural, is to begin by first stripping away those supernatural elements altogether. Before arriving at any form of transcendence, its best to ground it in a recognizable foundaiton. So at its most base level we find a story about a young, recently widowed woman struggling with coping with the loss of her spouse. From here we get some key details about her, her marriage, and the surrounding circumstnaces of their life. Some of the most important and most practical of these details are:
1. We know that she struggles with depression, although the film doesn’t precisely tell us why. Although the immediate context is the loss of her husband, her depression appears to reach back further than this, further than their marriage even, which has been a long lasting one.
2. Somewhere in her past she had a near death (or actual death) experience, being in a car crash where she was declared dead and revived and survived. The key bit of info surrounding this fact comes with the overarching sentiment of “nothing”. She states that when she died she experienced nothing. Therefore she has come to believe that there is nothing after death, or nothing after life depending on how you see it. She believes we cease to exist. Important to this point of observation is that she references her husband as being convinced of the opposite, that there is something after this life (or death), something that then comes together in the note he left following his suicide, which simply says “you were right, there is nothing after you… don’t worry, there is nothing to worry about, now you are safe.” These differing perspectives on the finality of life get fleshed out in the story, but underscores the importance of nothing as a narrative device, and even as a character.
3. We know that the husband committed suicide by shooting himself. At one point she (the widow), in reference to their marriage, cites this revelation that if her husband did suffer with depression she didn’t know it. She describes herself as the one with the depression and that he kept whatever was inside him bottled up where it couldn’t be seen. This opens us up to an important thread in the story that explores the possibility that there were parts of her husband that remained hidden to her. This fact will become necessary in unravelling his side of their story.
4. As she deals with her grief, at a very base level the film wants to show her struggling with knowing and perhaps accepting what is real. Acceptance of her husbands passing is a part of this. Wrestling with her ongoing pyschological stress, including seeing things in their now empty house. And then, in a very material sense, being driven to solve the mystery of some of these hidden pieces of her husband’s past.
Once the metaphor is allowed to occupy some space within the narrative all of these basic points start to make sense as they come together in some unique ways Again, if we can play this out in its simplest form, we have a widow struggling with depression in light of her husband’s passing, and as she struggles to come to terms with this loss she faces questions about life’s point, life’s worth, and contemplates taking her own life in the process, following in the footsteps of her husband. She is saved by a friend, and finds some motivation to stay alive and keep living.
But don’t stop there, because there is a lot more going on in this film than simply this. In fact, if this is the story people are looking for they likely will leave frustrated because of all the other confusing parts of the story that are also present. So let’s deal with some of that with the foundation in place:
1. So what about those books and that weird diagram? The key to understanding that is found in the book’s descriptive. This is also where we get the film’s unique visual imagination. To start with, the point of the diagram is two fold as it is presented to us in the film. First, it is meant to connect the present (modernism and humanity) with the past (ancient world, beliefs and customs). It is meant to bring to light the ways in which the ancients dealt with depression and anxiety over this world and their reality (which they saw in relationship to the gods and the land), and to parallel this with how they, husband and wife, are dealing with their depression in a different world. The whole concept of the diagram was ritualistic to a degree, but was motivated not towards escaping (as in a maze) but tricking the gods so that they could escape whatever it is that was deemed to be going on in relationship to them. This then informs the basic subplot of the mirrored house the husband is building (identitical to their own), the many woman who resemble the widow whom she finds on his computer, and the emergent encounter she has later on in the film with what we come to know simply as “nothing” (allusions to the Never Ending Story may apply), which appear to mirror what is going on with her husband and these other similar looking woman (whom she begins to see visions of). More on the specifics here in a bit, but firstly this is why this element of the story is important. it’s mostly intrested in using the ancient-present context to say something about how humans deal with the reality of what is a harsh and often cruel world. Things like disillusionment, depression and anxiety are not simply present realities, they are human realities that have been present for as long as we have been aware of this reality.
Secondly, the point then is to also challenge our own perception of reality. As the Director posits in one interview, much of this film wants to reflect on the nature of fear from two perspectives at the same time. Depending on whether you find a world where ghosts exist scarier, or a world where ghosts don’t exist scarier, that will play into the kind of story you both see this film telling and need it to tell in order to make sense of your experience. In some sense it would be a more modernized narrative to simply position “nothing” in this film as a functional allegory/metaphor for material reality. it would be a more ancient assumption to see “nothing” as the actual embodiment of death and meaninglessness itself. An actual agency that exists in this world and which holds a degree of power over us. In either case, death and meaninglessness (more on that relationship in a second) is uncovered as an enemy meant to be conquered, so these ways of seeing and understanding reality aren’t mutually exclusive, and yet they do tend to draw the story in particular ways. It is by implementing this ancient-present visual and context that the film let’s both stories and possibilities co-exist at the same time.
2. So I initially described the universal narrative here as “depression” and anxiety, those feelings of meaninglessness that can overwhelm us in the face of life’s cruel reality. I do actually think it is a bit more complex or nuanced than this within the larger narrative. Depresson can manifest itself in different ways and with different results, which is the point of the film I think. And yet I do think there is a shared dyamic that we can locate within all of its interconnecting and at times disparate threads, and that is rooted in this sense of meaninglessness. In this sense, even the presence of suicide in this film can be allegorical/metaphorical or literal representations depending on the story you are experiencing. Same too with death itself. This film is not saying something strictly about the truth of whether there is something after life or death (this is the point of the strange note the husband leaves) even though that tension could very well be at the forefront for some, rather it is saying that the tension can be seen literally or metaphorically. In the same kind of sense that we use the term fighting ones personal demons. Case in point about how this film functions, if you try to force any of this stuff into an imposed literalism you will find the details of the story falling apart at some point. If you leave it open to the possibility of interpretation it actually works quite well and profoundly.
A further point in this regard. What is obvious is the double meaning of nothing in this film. She states that when she died there was “nothing” after. As the film goes on “nothing” forms into a noun, a personified something that she then finds herself at war with. She sees it in the form of her husband, who she knows is gone. In some sense the process she is moving through and working through is the allusion of hope that she initially finds in her husbands presumed presence, which then forms into the presence of “nothing” which tells her there is no point to life. The final scene in the film after she decides not to listen to that voice assures us that this is a tension that never really leaves or goes away. Rather we live with it, thus figuring out how this translates to hope, both for the prseent and the unknown future. This is where it is again important to recognize what story we hear this telling. There are those who will see this with an inner conviction of a nihlistic end. They might see the “nothing” in its most literal sense that there is “nothing” after life (or death). Translating the story in this way can locate the challenge of living purely in the acceptance of the reality that death is inevitable, this present life is all there is, so we “ought” (in the philosophical sense”) to find a way to live it even if there doesn’t appear to be great reason to do so. That story can tell this person that it is possible to live and that some manage to do so. On the other hand, there are those who find themselves struggling with the tension itself, with the longing for greater meaning in this world to make itself known, the longing for something more than simply this present and often cruel reality, and thus the immense weight of the nothing creeping in and telling us this is all there is, particularly in the face of death. That story can say to that person, you are not alone in the struggle and that the struggle is real. Another story yet might come into this with a degree of confidence and conviction that this present reality is not all there is, that there is another story being told. That person can see “nothing” as an actual embodied agency, a force that represents this very real war between life and death. The great deciever if you will, attempting to convince us that this life is meaningless and thus you live as though it is or you join in this reality.
Add into this picture the myriad of allegorical and metaphorical possibilities (that nothing embodies depression and anxiety itself, or that nothing is a stand in for that failed relationship or that crisis of identity or job loss or whatever weight we happen to be carrying), and this is a story that is both about death and not about death, about what comes after and not about what comes after, about suicide and not about suicide, and so on. It can be about any number of things all at once while allowing all of these things to play back into a shared struggle. This is part of the Director’s brilliance in how this film is constructred.
3. Now how about that husband? Turns out he is a serial killer, which throws a certain weird and kind of offputting wrinkle into the story. Dont’ write this part off so quickly though, as it proves hugely important to fleshing out his side of this story. This of course begins with that allusion to his depression. Turns out he is struggling. While we are not clued in entirely to the why and the what, whereas her struggle seems to reach beyond their marrage, his struggle appears to be contextualized within the marriage itself. It almost appears as though he feels responsible for her struggles with depression which manifests itself in this sequencing of extremes that try and help her by tricking “nothing”, the agency (depression embodied) he sees going after his wife. This of course results in negative outcomes, but this is where we need to uphold the literal and metaphorical/allegorical parts of this story at the same time. The easiest way to translate this part of the story is to look at it this way. Sometimes when we see the suffering of someone we love we take that burden on ourselves and it manifests in negative ways within the other facets of our life. We cause harm in other ways because we are desperate to help the other ones we love, including to ourselves. On a literal front it is possible to translate this in the sense that even in such an extreme we can still see the same force (the embodied nothing) at work motivating such actions. it’s a reminder that we all struggle and that we all aren’t that much different when it is all said and done. The husband becomes so subsumed by his need to help his wife that he also neglects his own emotional well being, thus leading to such a conclusion that he is the problem and that she will be better off without him (this is where the last line of that note comes into play, which both affirms the wife’s sentiment, “you were right, there is nothing after”, and recontextualizes it to infer that yes, “Nothing” is in fact after you, but now yu are safe). This might be the most heartbreaking thread of the film to ruminate on afterwards, despite the serial killer context.
There is so much more that I could unpack here, but suffice to say that for me a recongitiion of the film’s brilliance came after my viewing when the full weight of both its possible stories and the story I heard started to come together. For me that struggle in facing the “nothing” and its inherent meaningless rose to the surface as a tension we have to live with. I see this from a position of desired hopefulness in something after that funcitons as a conviction sometimes with veracity, many times with less veracity. For me the loss itself (the death) is metaphorical for many of the parts of my own reality that represnt the tough parts about this world, while the depression itself is quite literal and real in terms of relating to her plight (as someone who has wrestled with suicide in the face of nothing). My own view of the world, despite the tension I carry in terms of that lack of certainty and aspiring to faith, sees nothing as an actual agency with power to affect our world and our view of it. It is something that for me, if we could write further subtext into this story, requires a more powerful agency to be defeated, one that doesn’t come from our own strength and ability. Too much of this world and this life tells me that to simply depend on ousrselves ends up with the husbands story, which I find emerges metaphorically/allegorically. Thus the questions and the constant questioning becomes crucial to living, as does an openness and humility to see this world as bigger than our own experience. To that end this film becomes a powerful exercise in the role of the interpretive exercise, locating those narratives and being in conversation with those narratives that arise from our experience of this world. And I fully admit, sometimes trying to square a world where ghosts (or god if you will) exists can be even more confusing and even tougher to believe in and imagine than simply accepting reality (after all, then we have to attend for why such an agency would allow suffering to exist). But for me that’s where that demand of the friend to live and the invitation of nothing to simply join him because living is pointless is left without a convicing answer. That might be the hardest hitting point for me in this film. The friend simply helps her out of the boat, but that decision doesn’t arrive with any degree of rationality, certainty, or conclusions about the why and the what. The why and the what that says she “ought” to get out of that boat is left lingering in the air. I love this honesty. It’s not despairing, rather it resists easy answers so as to allow people the room to tell their stories. And yes, in some cases that boat and the gun, joining the nothing, does emerge as the most rational answer. That’s the difficult piece to accept when looking at others. All we want looking from the other side is to offer that easy answer- just live. Don’t become nothing. There is a point. And yet to pretend like those statements arrive easily or rationally is to neglect the humillity such a story evokes. There are reasons (and entirely rational reasons even within our limited and present knowledge) people find to live either within a nihilistic premise or with a view of god and spirit, and in both cases those reasons can translate in good and bad ways. But the point of this story is that both require an irrational leap in our reasoning, our belief systems to arrive there, and doing so is never easy when faced with the reality of suffering, death and hardship. To acknowledge that the meaninglessness and even giving in to “nothing’s” claim on us and this world is an equally rational position to come to is I think part of a liberating place to least begin this important conversation together.