They Remain (2018) is a minimalist slow-burn thriller movie about two people, Keith (William Jackson Harper) and Jessica (Rebecca Henderson), who are sent to a remote area to study it in isolation. The pair are looking for clues in the soil, water, plants, and animals about what could have caused the cult that used to occupy this land to commit mass murder. They don’t really find clues, but the land is strange and creepy. Both Keith and Jessica have unexplainable experiences that increase in frequency as their assignment continues.
‘They Remain’ setting
The setting of this movie is never made clear. While Keith and Jessica work in isolation from the outside world, we are never told where they are. We are also not told when they are, as in when this movie is supposed to be taking place. The effect this has on the audience is that the setting seems both normal and unsettling.
They Remain is based on the short story “-30-” by Laird Barron, a 21st-century horror and fantasy author. Explaining why he wanted to make a movie out of this story, writer/director Philip Gelatt said:
I found myself re-reading the story, parsing its details, exploring its shadows, and trying to figure out just what the hell was really happening there.
I loved that it was, on its surface, such a simple story: “two scientists go into the woods, they go crazy and try to kill each other.” But underneath there seemed to lurk an almost bottomless depth of implication, meaning, and subtext. Everything was just slightly out of frame, just hidden enough that you couldn’t tell what was really there and what wasn’t.
What happens at the end of ‘They Remain’?
At the movie’s climax, both Keith and Jessica have experienced their share of strange happenings. The audience has seen several “actually it was just a dream” segments at this point that establish both characters becoming suspicious of the other (and losing their sanity). They hear noises coming from the woods or behind the walls, they have strange dreams and visions, and they observe the animals and insects acting unnaturally. Keith and Jessica eventually become paranoid enough that (tap to reveal spoiler) the two fight and Jessica throws acid on Keith. He locks himself in a room and when he comes out, Jessica has disappeared. Keith returns to a mysterious cave in the woods that has captivated him. In a shocking surprise, after crawling to part of the cave where he can sit upright, Keith again encounters Jessica, who asks, “did you come to save me…or to join us?”
They Remain is one of those movies where the ending is meant to be ambiguous. Writer/director Philip Gelatt says:
I wanted to sink the viewer into that “dream or reality” ambiguity. I wanted people to, at different points, wonder if we were in a dream sequence or not in a dream sequence and actively engage with the film to try to sort that out.
Ultimately, a lot of this film is designed to try to get viewers to lean forward and engage with the story’s ambiguities and mysteries. It’s not a movie that’s going to tell you a story — it’s going to give you some pieces and ask you to tell yourself the story.
One theory about the ending is that the whole movie was actually about isolation and mental illness, not a murderous cult or some haunted woods. It’s similar to the plot of The Haunting (1999) in that studying the cult was a red herring. The real reason our protagonists are sent to the location at all is for the company that employs them to study the effects of isolation on human behavior. In this adaptation of The Haunting, the guests of Hill House believe they are participating in a sleep study, not an exploration of paranormal events like Dr. Montague is actually conducting.
Is ‘They Remain’ good?
I love cult movies. I actually picked this movie to watch, because the trailer reminded me of Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013), a horror movie inspired by Jim Jones and the tragic mass murder/suicide at Jonestown. But after watching They Remain, I would classify it more as an isolation horror movie than a cult movie. It’s a slow burner and doesn’t come with a big twist ending or even an ending that answers many of the audience’s questions. I’d say it’s the polar opposite of a deus ex machina ending. My best guess is that if you want to see something that’s a cross between It Comes at Night and The Sacrament, you will like this movie.