'The Night House' exposes the horrors of not knowing your romantic partner

Aug 25, 2021 at 1:00 am
Beth (Rebecca Hall) finds her picture-perfect home is no safe harbor from terror. 
Beth (Rebecca Hall) finds her picture-perfect home is no safe harbor from terror.  Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

Ignore the repeated staccato piano key and overcast sky, and the first scene of David Bruckner's The Night House could inspire considerable envy. Within a lakefront residence screaming minimalist chic meets bucolic escapism, a series of shots set the stage for what will soon reveal itself to be one part ghost story, one part psychological thriller, and one part domestic drama: wall-to-wall windows, a sculpted wind chime, exposed ceiling beams, a double marble bathroom vanity, woodgrain picture frames of a handsome hetero couple. For the majority of us quarantined for more than a year in smaller, humbler abodes, the setting seems less scary than a swell spot to start an indoor herb garden, read hardbound books, or sink into sea salts in a freestanding tub.

So how does a house that looks like a backdrop for a West Elm catalog become a claustrophobic hellhole of dread and despair? By redefining what haunts it. As explored in an array of horror films from the past few years — take Ari Aster's 2018 Hereditary or Natalie Erika James's 2020 Relic — family trauma can be just as blood-curdling as the clearly supernatural. But while most hauntings frame the ghastly and ghostly in filial terms — a demonic child or delirious parent — The Night House examines how marriage itself can be a site of unspeakable darkness.

Look closer and the opening shots clue us in to what's to come: tissues wadded up aside an empty tumbler, a prescription bottle tucked behind a jewelry box, a "Take Back Control" facial mask on the bathroom counter. Shortly after, we meet Beth (Rebecca Hall), the film's defiant heroine, dumping a lasagna after the funeral of her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit). Spinning his suicide note in her left hand while swilling brandy with her right, Beth scrutinizes their living room, frantic for answers in the house that he both designed and helped build. "Did you seriously not know anything was wrong?" asks a tactless teacher colleague during a night out at the pub. "No, I didn't know," she responds bluntly. "I'm the one who struggled with that stuff — depression, dark thoughts ... maybe I infected him with my bullshit."

Much of the rest of the film consists of Beth doggedly searching the house — and herself — for reasons for Owen's suicide. In a scene reminiscent of Babadook, she pages through what seems to be an innocuous book of blueprints for their home, flipping from meticulously detailed floor plans to equally detailed — and so eerie — measurements for a labyrinth. "Trick It, Don't Listen to It," reads an ominous notation in Owen's blocky script. "Our House," the verso reads below a figure of the façade, the recto mysteriously labeled "Reverse Floorplan" next to a mirror image of the first. Was he designing two identical houses at the same time? And whom — or what — was he trying to trick? The next morning, the opening chords to Richard Thompson's "The Calvary Cross" blasts from the home stereo. "COME DOWN," glows the screen of Beth's iPhone with a message from Owen, followed by "DON'T BE AFRAID."

Of course, like Beth, we should be afraid — though of what, precisely, the film duly obscures, sprinkling her psychological unraveling (and heavy drinking) with some serious jump scares. The Night House vacillates between validating Beth's deepest fears that she is to blame for her husband's death and suggesting that, in fact, Owen's not the affable jock with a circular saw that she (and we) have taken him for. "Just remember who you fell in love with," counsels her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), in response to the string of Beth lookalikes found in Owen's iPhone photos. "No matter who he became, he was that, too."

As likely as it may be that a wife or husband would blame themselves if their spouse suddenly and violently took their own life, some might take The Night House as yet another story indicting the wife for her husband's misdeeds. "There's nothing," Beth tells Claire, recounting a near-death experience she had as a teen in an attempt to decipher Owen's cryptic suicide note. "I wish I could tell you something — a light at the end of the tunnel. But there's just tunnel." To Beth, her attraction to death is to blame for it all, no matter how preposterous the logic.

Troubling (and implicitly sexist) as this logic may be, as the film's protagonist, Beth is an unapologetic badass, a lanky skeptic whose stubbornness (and occasional bitchiness) invigorate the frame. No matter her torment, she swings purposefully from room to room, confronting her demons external and internal, and shattering final-girl horror tropes in the process. From a sarcastic eye roll at a grade-grubbing parent to a quivering lower lip when a storm door shudders, Hall's face is preternaturally expressive, dominating each shot as much as the nightmarish terrain of the lakefront property. "You wanna say something?! Talk to me," she demands of Death, the house, her absent husband. Rather than flee whatever is chasing her, Beth downs a tumbler of brandy and rallies against the void. By contrast, Owen remains but a strapping cipher (or an excuse to get Jonigkeit naked onscreen).

If interpreted as suggesting that a wife's depression can cause her husband's suicide, The Night House may feel a shallow exercise in survivor-blaming masked as pathology. But as a gripping exploration of how grief can twist our clearest perceptions, it's a thrilling row across the waters of marital terror.

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