Two scientists arrive at a sealed habitat somewhere in the wilderness at the behest of a corporation hoping to profit from their work, setting up cameras on trees to capture something apparently wandering in the woods, taking samples to test back in the habitat lab and deploying and maintaining equipment. It’s all got something to do with animals acting strangely and a massacre in the area years – maybe decades – back thanks to the fallout from an extremist religious cult.
They’re the questions “They Remain” poses, but it isn’t terribly interested in answering them. If you’re after a straight arrow mystery thriller, look elsewhere. As the study progresses, we’re given snippets and snatches of information about the reasons the pair (William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson, who aren’t given names) are there and what they’re finding out, but the story never reveals itself fully.
Instead, cowriter/director Phillip Gelatt is interested in something else altogether. Like “The Thing”, “Shutter Island” or “Rosemary’s Baby”, “They Remain” is a meditation on mistrust, tension and paranoia.
The two scientists apparently share a romantic history, but when they arrive they seem nonplussed about the likelihood of it affecting their work. Then, strange things start to happen to bring them slowly undone.
The remote cameras start to go offline, at times seeming like they’ve been sabotaged from within the habitat. They hear strange knocking at night. In the morning, the woman goes outside and disappears for hours, not giving any explanation when she comes back and not seeming to know she’s done anything wrong. An erotic dream about her haunts the man. He blinks and finds himself miles from where he was a second before.
Are they cracking up? Overworked and hallucinating? Has it all got something to do with the strange findings they’re chasing – maybe toxic chemicals in the environment? Is it a fever dream being had by members of the cult, maybe as they lay dead (the graves of which the pair keep finding)?
It could be any combination of things and as above, if you want to know the answers to all the mysteries “They Remain” raises, you’re going to be disappointed.
The reason to watch the film is because Gelatt shows a deft hand portraying an effective and constantly sinister tone. Something as inocuous as a wide expanse of the outdoors seems haunted and dangerous even before he zeroes in on the pair looking fearfully across the tent at each other (or something else altogether), and you’re waiting for something terrible to happen at any minute. To say whether it does would be a spoiler, but be warned that even if it did, the film doesn’t seem like it’d be terribly concerned with explaining that either.
The weird, chaotic soundtrack full of dramatic strings and drums combines with a slow burn quality to put you on edge, and you stay there for the entire film. The cinematography is great, long shots just as well staged as the tight focus on darting eyes or staring faces. In another universe a version of They Remain might have unravelled its mysteries in the narrative as well and been an almost perfect blend of storytelling and the cinematic arts.