They Remain film review: William Jackson Harper stars in brilliantly disorienting chiller

Philip Gelatt’s woodland mystery They Remain depicts the violent clash of nature and cult(ure)

“The world is large and unknowable,” Keith (William Jackson Harper) tells Jessica (Rebecca Henderson). “No one ever really knows anything.”

While obsessive Jessica conducts biological and genetic field research in a tented laboratory, hoping to find a “a previously uncharacterised element, genetic, environmental or otherwise – one that might change the way we view our relationship to the natural world”, distrustful loner Keith collects the samples, maintains the cameras, and makes sure the woodland environs are safe from unwanted intruders.

This place comes with a history of violence. The insects are going crazy, wolves prowl nearby, and any humans bivouacked here previously – whether the first settlers from two centuries earlier, a more recent Manson-like cult gone wrong, or a group of CSI investigators – have been afflicted with madness and murder. “Maybe there’s some connection between past and present,” speculates Jessica, “Maybe it’s genetics, maybe it’s chemistry”; to which Keith responds, “Maybe it’s aliens, maybe it’s ghosts, maybe it’s none of that shit.” Whatever is really going on as the pair uncover mass graves and get lost in strange dreams, that insistent sense of ‘maybe’ prevails, casting its ambiguous shadow through the tree line. Keith and Jessica may, respectively, be black and white, but nothing else here is – and no one ever really knows anything.

Adapted from Laird Barron’s 2010 short story -30-, writer/director Philip (The Bleeding House) Gelatt’s They Remain pitches its tent in a disorienting space between nature and cult(ure), as Sean Kirby’s initially lyrical camerawork takes on an increasingly hallucinatory urgency, and Keith falls prey to paranoia delusion. The obvious symbolism of a large black horn which mysteriously appears at the camp is immediately confirmed by wild sex between the co-workers. From here on in, Keith regresses to an atavistic state, renegotiating his relationship to the natural world, and leaving us in the dark, without a map.