There’s something comforting about how bizarre and messy Things Heard & Said is. It’s not a good film for a myriad of reasons, but despite (in spite of?) its two hour run time and overly familiar plot, the film is compulsively watchable, even when it’s veering dangerously off the rails.
The new Netflix film fluidity crosses a variety of subgenres, but it is primarily a period supernatural infidelity religious thriller starring Amanda Seyfried and James Norton.
Oh wait, that’s all of the subgenres.
Seyfried and Norton star as ridiculously attractive married artists named Catherine and George (she draws; he used to paint, but now teaches art history). They have a young daughter who barely matters aside from the fact that her existence necessitates the Claires hire a babysitter.
The inciting incident occurs when the young family moves to Upstate New York after George secures a teaching position, which they readily accept because they’re cash-strapped. This is all disclosed at a going away party that also casually introduces Catherine’s eating disorder, which the film completely mishandles until it becomes a MAJOR plot point (it’s not good, even by 1980 standards, which is when the film is set).
Let’s rewind: the action technically begins in media res when George returns home from school to discover blood dripping from the ceiling of his garage and his daughter bouncing on the furniture. The rest of the film is primarily told in flashback – beginning with the going away party the previous Spring and building back up to the bloody present.
It’s evident right from the beginning of Shari Springer Berman’s script (she also co-directed with Robert Pulcini) that there is marital discord between husband and wife (this also comes out at the party. Things Heard & Said *hates* parties). Catherine confides in her POC best friend (who never reappears because the film is situated in rural WASP-ville, USA) that the decision to move is principally for George’s benefit, not hers. Catherine has only agreed because she found out his parents were supporting them.
There are maybe three scenes before it’s confirmed that George is an asshole who is gaslighting his wife: not only has he lied about their new home’s bloody history (family massacres for generations – yada yada yada), he is also prone to infidelity. The Claires have barely unpacked before George sets his predatory sights on the first hot girl who rebuffs him (Natalia Dyer’s Willis). He’s also charming the head of the department, Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), though George’s colleague Justine (Rhea Seehorn) isn’t as easily fooled by his nice guy act.
Catherine is left at home to cook, clean and take stock of the house’s supernatural elements (a mysterious ring; a shimmery presence; flickering nightlights – yada yada yada). She also has a flirty connection with Eddy Lucks (Alex Neustaedter), the older teen brother of Cole, the babysitter played by Jack Gore (Things Heard & Said likes infidelity as much as it hates parties, which is to say A LOT). The boys – naturally – have a connection to the house (the whole vibe of the film is incestuous cycles of behaviour).
Catherine’s wronged woman and George’s cad husband are the centrepiece of the film and, in that capacity, they do well. Seyfried is more than capable of playing an isolated, meek housewife trapped in a shitty marriage; Norton, meanwhile, is carving out a niche for himself as the charming asshole who’ll fuck you, dump you and ruin your life in the process. Still, when he shows his bare ass this often, how can we begrudge his artistic choices?
If Things Heard & Said (also: oof, that title) were a game of Mad Libs, it would be the ghostly machinations of What Lies Beneath with a sprinkle of convoluted religious horror and a dash of 90s erotic thriller. That last component is almost entirely courtesy of Seehorn, who elevates every scene she’s in; the Better Call Saul actress runs away with the film. Despite limited screen time and virtually no character development, Catherine’s bestie and George’s nemesis is easily the MVP of Things Heard & Said. Each time that Justine appears, it’s impossible not to wish the film were hers instead of the milquetoast “rocky” marriage we’re purportedly meant to invest in.
This may sound as though Things Heard & Said is a dreadful, familiar bore (and it admittedly kind of is), but it is also fantastically entertaining (think the golden age of Lifetime and Hallmark thrillers, but as a compliment). There’s a comfort to be found in the ability to anticipate every plot “twist” and relishing the bloodless violence and marital discord between pretty white people.
The film also chugs along at a deliberate pace that is never boring, complete with the occasional absurd development to ensure audiences don’t completely doze off. Consider the following questions:
- Do you like characters who were *barely* introduced earlier randomly showing up later to deliver key bits of exposition? Well Things Heard & Said does it twice!
- Do you fancy blatant, recurring riffs on Talented Mr. Ripley? Well Things Heard & Said has a painting and a sailboat you’re going to love!
And then there is the completely bananas final thirty minutes. This is when the film completely derails into deliciously fantastic WTFuckery.
Wait…those blood spurts.
Wait…that character is actually dead?!
Wait…there’s a religious maelstrom?
WHAT IS HAPPENING?!
The whole film is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a sedative. The actors are almost painfully bland and attractive. The aesthetic is terrified of period details so as to render the 80s time period moot. There’s always some weird, questionable creative decision to ponder, but the plot is familiar enough that it’s entirely possible audiences will be convinced they’ve seen the film before.*
*Until the finale, which is aggressively bad and so misguided that it verges on farce. Still, even this is also somehow obvious? It’s all very confusing.
So yes, the film is unquestionably mediocre, but still incredibly entertaining. Everyone needs to watch this immediately – not because it’s good, but so that a discussion about everything can occur.
The Bottom line: Things Heard & Said is the thriller equivalent of a weighted blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. It’ll warm your stomach, make you sleepy and possibly rot your teeth. Curl up on the couch and dig in.
Things Heard & Said is available on Netflix on April 29.