The Unheard begins with noise, and then silence.
The noise is both auditory and visual in nature, as an old family video plays with its staticky images jumping and skipping and the audio track loudly distorting. A mother and child can be seen, both inside and outdoors, and a voice can be heard calling ‘Mommy’ repeatedly, but it is otherwise fragmented and impressionistic, like a faint memory or a nightmare. Then the silence accompanies Chloe Grayden (Lachlan Watson) as she wakes on a coach to Massachusetts. There, while staying as a child at the family’s isolated summer house near Provincetown in Cape Cod, Chloe had contracted meningitis and emerged from a coma six months later profoundly deaf. Adding to Chloe’s sensory loss, her mother Emily (Michele Hicks) had vanished without trace around the same time.
Chloe has lived ever since with her father (voiced by Bill Sage) in Maine, and is only now, for the first time in twelve years, returning to Massachusetts, both to trial a new experimental treatment for deafness, and to clean up the summer house for sale. Which is to say that this young adult, in trying to put her past behind her, must first revisit it. Chloe’s inability to hear is reflected in the muteness of the film’s early sequences, with both the coach’s and the hospital’s interior noise reduced to a heavily filtered low buzz. Indeed, the only sound that Chloe still hears is her mother’s voice, half remembered and coming back to her, like a summoning, in her dreams.
That voice grows ever stronger and more insistent as Chloe comes back to Provincetown, now off-season and largely empty, and reencounters local childhood playmate Joshua (Brendan Meyer) and his wheelchair-bound mother Ellen (Boyana Balta), and old family friend Hank (Nick Sandow), now a handyman since a leg injury forced him to retire from police work. “Regaining sensibility can be quite jarring,” Dr Sophia Lynch (Shunori Ramanthan) had warned Chloe at the beginning of the treatment, and now that Chloe’s deafness is fast receding, she can hear her mother’s voice again, not just scratchily recorded on the family collection of old VCR tapes, but coming loud and clear from the house’s walls and floors, as both plea and warning.
Indeed, warnings are not out of place in a town decorated with an unusual number of missing persons notices – the ‘wall of shame’, as Hank calls it, which includes an old poster for Emily. For someone – it is not exactly hard to guess who given the limited dramatis personae – has for years been donning giallo-esque black gloves, murdering women and concealing the evidence. Yet a stir of echoes remains. Others besides Chloe are aware of the strange vibes in the air waves – and if Chloe, who we are told several times looks just like Emily, does not tune in fast, then she risks retreading her mother’s footsteps and replaying her fate.
Directed by Jeffrey A. Brown (The Beach House, 2019) and written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (Crawl, 2019), The Unheard is part psychodrama and part ghost story, as past crimes leave a sonic trace of grief and guilt that only sensitive ears can pick up. Chloe’s conflicted recovery runs parallel to her mother’s convoluted retribution, in a peculiar merger of Darius Marder’s Sound Of Metal (2019) and Mike Flanagan’s Hush (2016), where the final restoration is also a reprise, if not quite a rewind.
Here, amid all the cat-and-mouse elements of a serial killer thriller, the supernatural comes to coexist with the psychological. For at its heart, The Unheard is a film about accommodating trauma and learning to heal when memories – good and bad – are stuck on a recurring, deteriorating loop. Needless to say, as Chloe starts to hear again and the ghosts of her past to speak, Colin Alexander’s sound design is a crucial part of the mix, by turns silent and noisy.
strap: Jeffrey A. Brown’s ghost story slash serial killer thriller allows a young woman, cured of deafness, to tune into the noisy dead
© Anton Bitel