It’s impossible to talk about what’s wrong with The Others without talking about why you can’t talk about what’s wrong with The Others.
Stay with me, now, gentle reader; this gets a bit tricky. Or perhaps you’d prefer not to stay with me, if you’re one of those moviegoers who prefers a completely tabula rasa viewing experience. The mere mention of the general subject I’m about to mention may be considered giving something away. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
So much need for so many caveats—that’s why it’s so frustrating to discuss The Others, a film that deserves discussing. In a cinema landscape where so many filmmakers think a movie is only really scary if there are a hundred ridiculous CGI effects (cough The Haunting cough cough), writer/director Alejandro Amenábar has crafted an unnerving gothic ghost story. For over an hour, The Others builds tension and anticipation that it will pack a creepy emotional wallop. And then …
But first, before the “and then …” Set in post-VE-Day 1945, The Others features Nicole Kidman as Grace, mistress of a large and appropriately spooky house on the British isle of Jersey. Grace lives in isolation with her children Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley)—both of whom suffer from a rare and intense photosensitivity that makes strong light potentially fatal—and waits for word on the fate of her MIA husband. A trio of new servants has just arrived to replace those who mysteriously disappeared one night, but keeping good help is the least of Grace’s worries when Anne’s claim of visitations from a boy named Victor evolves into strange noises all over the house.
Strange noises, mysterious disappearances, unseen visitors, plenty of dim lighting throwing unsettling shadows—this is the stuff of a classic haunted house movie. Amenábar seems to understand instinctively that much more profound dread emerges from wondering what’s in the next room than from something jumping out of a corner to go booga-booga. From Amenábar’s own original score to the low-key performances, The Others unfolds as a crackerjack piece of pure atmospheric horror.
And then …
It has come to this in the world of the film thriller, whether supernatural or psychological: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got a zinger. The Crying Game, The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Memento—we’ve practically come to expect “twists,” those third act mind-benders that leave the audience buzzing. Studios know that we’ve come to expect them, to the extent that they don’t even see a problem with marketing the fact that there’s a twist. Remember those ads for The Crying Game that urged you to see the movie that “everybody’s talking about, but nobody’s telling its secrets”?
The Others is a twist-thriller made by a director who likes his twist-thrillers (Amenábar’s previous film, Abre los Ojos, was one as well), and don’t scream bloody murder if you think I’ve spoiled your fun by saying as much. I’ll wager good cash money that, by the time this review sees print, Dimension Films will have run ads for The Others with some exclamatory critic’s quote about the “shocker of a surprise ending!” These things get around, because it makes for a good marketing hook.
Whether it makes for a good movie-going experience is another matter entirely. The disappointing thing about The Others is not that there is a plot twist. It’s not even the specific twist that Amenábar chooses, which holds up perfectly well in the tightly-crafted script as you replay the film in your mind’s eye. What thwarts The Others from its chance to become a remarkable little genre film is that the twist becomes the film. All that spectacular atmosphere Amenábar works so hard to build evaporates as viewers spend the rest of the film’s climax either congratulating themselves for figuring it out ahead of time, or thinking, “My goodness, that was clever.”
In the case of The Others, that reaction proves doubly frustrating. For most of its running time, Amenábar teases with the promise that Grace’s story will have a psychological resolution—that the character, ultimately, will be the thing. As strong as Kidman’s performance is—no one does a gaze of wide-eyed terror like she does—The Others doesn’t pay off on an emotional level. It may be only five or 10 minutes of character texture away from brilliance, but it’s ultimately just a really well-constructed parlor game.
At its finest, a twist-thriller forces you to re-think not just the plot of the film, but its ideas as well. Whatever one may think about The Crying Game or Memento, there’s no denying that plot developments were intrinsic to thematic concerns—the movies can’t be about what they’re about without those developments. The Others comes close, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. While Amenábar tells a nifty ghost story, you get this nagging sense that he’s just as interested in the sound your ass makes as it hits the floor when he pulls the rug out from under you.
In a sense, it’s nearly as hard to knock The Others as it is to talk about it. In a summer of gleefully dumb and overwrought movies, this is one with subtlety, style and even a dark sense of humor. The Others deserves a look. But it also deserved to be something more than the latest film with a “shocker of a surprise ending!” Along with the endings, there’s a sense of priorities that’s getting twisted.
The Others (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Alejandro Amenábar. Starring Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann and James Bentley.