No matter what type of story any particular movie is trying to tell, success usually comes when a mood is set early. Filmmakers can try all the plot trickery they want, but if they forget about establishing the tone of the film relatively early in the story, the twists and turns can be for naught.
Co-writers/co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini make sure to follow that mandate in Things Heard & Seen, and, just as crucially, let the mood simmer throughout the film’s two-hour running time instead of forcing the issue. The film centers on Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) and George Claire (James Norton), a couple who move with their young daughter to rural New York in 1980 when James gets a job teaching at the local college.
They move into an 1800s-era farmhouse that immediately gives off creepy vibes, with strange electric surges and unexplained movements. But the film, which was adapted from Elizabeth Brundage’s novel All Things Cease to Appear, has more on its mind than a mere ghost story. As the film goes along, loyalties get tested, truths get uncovered, and revenge is sought by those by alive and dead.
Springer Berman and Pulcini, who hadn’t managed to recapture the magic of their 2003 Oscar-nominated script for American Splendor in other subsequent films, deliver a film here that works on a number of levels. Various marriage issues between Catherine and George are as or more important than anything than might be going on with the house, and the jockeying back and forth between the two storylines opens up the plot possibilities greatly. Instead of being stuck down the narrow path of how a haunting affects a family, they are free to explore a variety of other avenues that bring depth to the story.
Those side plots bring in a number of interesting characters played by a dynamite supporting cast, including Rhea Seehorn, Natalia Dyer, Karen Allen, F. Murray Abraham, and Alex Neustaedter. Each of these characters push the two main characters in oft-unexpected directions, lending the story an unpredictability that aids it immeasurably.
Seyfried has had an interesting career, going between mainstream and prestige films, including her Oscar-nominated role in 2020’s Mank. This one falls in the middle, and she handles it well, giving meaning to the material and never going over the top, even when warranted. Norton, an English actor best known previously for his role in 2019’s Little Women, does a great job with a character whose bad traits are seen more often than his good ones.
Things Heard & Seen is best experienced by accepting what the film gives you, not pre-judging what you think the movie should be. Unexplained phenomena can be scary, but it can be more frightening dealing with people who can become real-life monsters.
Things Heard & Seen is now streaming on Netflix.