The Night House

The Night House (2020)

The Night House first published by Movies on Weekends

The Night House begins with a montage: a boat rocking against a jetty, a beautiful timber lakehouse above, and multiple shots mapping out the the house’s interiors. What unifies all these images is their emptiness. For there is no human presence in or around this house, apart from in the framed pictures standing on surfaces or hanging on walls – photographs depicting Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) and Beth (Rebecca Hall), both together and apart – but these are more absences than presences, ghosts preserved as part of an empty house’s furnishings. As night falls, the real Beth will be brought by a friend to the house’s front door and will cross the threshold alone – but she has just come from a funeral, and is now a widow, her husband Owen forever gone. A few days ago he had taken their rowboat out on the lake and shot himself, leaving behind only a cryptic note for Beth. Now Beth’s online search at work for a new home somehow drifts to a webpage for hand guns, as plans to move on with her life and thoughts of suicide pull her fragile psyche in opposite directions. 

Like David Bruckner‘s previous The Ritual (2017), The Night House is a film that builds up its genre furnishings on foundations of grief, loss and guilt. Owen was an architect, and as Beth spends her nights in the dream house that he built for them both, trying to process her contradictory feelings at a time normally associated with sleep, things go bump and creak in the darkness, and she becomes convinced that Owen is trying to contact her from beyond. In this respect, Bruckner’s film evokes Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016) and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017), while Hall’s riveting, tortured performance both anchors and unhinges everything. Beth’s mixed emotions – missing Owen terribly while feeling both mystified and betrayed by his behaviour – lead her to start drinking deep and digging through his phone and computer and notebooks in search of answers. Soon she uncovers not just Owen’s double-life spent with a series of other women (like Stacy Martin‘s Madelyne) who are all very much the same type as Beth, but also a crepuscular mirror world (on ‘the other side’ of the lake) where Owen seems to have been conducting a peculiar protective ritual.

Indeed, the whole of The Night House plays out like a mystic, even orgiastic, nocturnal rite, as drunken, despairing Beth encounters – or at least imagines – restless spirits at the bottom of the bottle. With her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and her neighbour Mel (Vondie Curtis Hall) looking on with increasing alarm, Beth descends into the depression and dark thoughts which have always haunted her, and which the seemingly more positive Owen had always helped keep at bay. Having had a near-death experience when she was younger, Beth has long been certain that there is no afterlife, whereas Owen had faith in a world beyond – and this eschatological dialectic continues in the house, or at least in Beth’s mind, over the course of the film, as she struggles to reconcile what she would like, and what she actually believes, to be true. 

Confounding the supernatural with the psychological, this tale of two houses (one of which may not exist) raises ghosts in part from extraordinary trompe-l’oeil effects of perspective that emerge organically from the lakehouse’s shifting architecture. This is Beth’s way of conjuring her husband’s absent presence from the void, and finding meaning even when there is nothing there – and so, in this film about ends, the ending itself bobs ambiguously on the lake’s surface, managing impossibly to be both happy and utterly bleak. 

strap: David Bruckner’s psychological ghost story deconstructs the architecture of grief for bleak eschatological answers

Anton Bitel