In “The Night House,” fear stems less from supernatural occurrences and things that go bump in the night, and more from a less tangible sense of dread. The grief that consumes Beth (Rebecca Hall) in the wake of her husband Owen’s sudden suicide results in her starting to have strange dreams— dreams that bleed into reality. But is there something actually haunting the lake house Beth shared with her husband, or is the weight of her loss causing her to question what’s real and what isn’t?
That’s the premise of director David Bruckner’s “The Night House,” which is eerie without being outwardly frightening, and which resolves the complicated themes it sets up too quickly and neatly to feel satisfying. The first two thirds of “The Night House” are very intriguing. Beth starts stumbling upon clues that suggest that her husband was up to something that she had no inkling of prior. The more she investigates, the more complex it becomes. Was he having affairs? Was he secretly building another house, identical to his and Beth’s, across the lake? Was he a murderer? This storyline often feels separate from the strange experiences Beth starts having in her house, from seeing the vague outlines of a man to waking up to the stereo turning on by itself, although they are intrinsically tied. Ultimately, the ideas behind the “The Night House”—which is maybe a bit too spoiler-y to get into here, but which involves what comes after death, and what happens when one manages to elude death—feel too large for the movie to grasp, resulting in a climax that is too muddy to have the impact it should. It leaves a lot more questions than answers about the finer points of what Owen was up to. But the house on the lake and the woods surrounding it, largely secluded except for the presence of Beth’s neighbor Mel (the ever-reliable Vondie Curtis-Hall), are the perfect setting for this haunted house story. Bruckner imbues his movie with the requisite amount of quiet moments to give every scene the sense that something terrible is lurking in the shadows, before going off the rails with a finale that plays with our, and Beth’s, perception of reality.
It’s Rebecca Hall’s tremendous performance that really elevates “The Night House,” however. The heavy burden of the grief she is carrying is apparent in every scene, whether she is alone in her home, replaying videos of her and Owen over and over, or trying to play it off, as she does in an awkward bar outing with her colleagues. She perfectly walks that fine line between obsession and sanity and sadness and loneliness. But the movie also makes a point of showing that she isn’t truly alone. Sarah Goldberg plays Beth’s friend Claire, who stands by her and tries to help her through this time. A really nice relationship is built between them, one that never succumbs to pity. Even though Claire isn’t really on board with Beth’s seemingly crazy theories about Owen, she also never abandons Beth when she needs her most.
Ultimately, I think “The Night House” is a not very successful movie centered around a very successful performance. But it’s also the sort of movie whose themes of loss and grappling with what comes next will hit viewers differently depending on what experiences they enter it with—that is the very real-world terror that makes at least two thirds of “The Night House” a compelling film.
Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated R.