CFF Review: Harry Owens Hauntingly Tackles Grief With “The Unsettling”
“I thought we were here for a break”
“I thought we were here to start over?”
These lines between a grieving husband and wife midway through Harry Owen’s directorial debut, The Unsettling, perfectly encapsulates the feeling of attempting to restart your life after a tragedy. Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba) are at entirely different stages of the grieving process as they relocate to Los Angeles and Abena senses an eerie presence within the home they’re renting. Harry Owens fills this home with a great sense of unease through its stellar sound design, nuanced performances and methodical cinematography.
It’s not entirely clear what the tragedy the couple is running from is but flashbacks sprinkled throughout showing a beach and a shaken Abena show you enough to keep you invested in the couples story even if it’s a bit slow at first. That’s not to say it’s not immediately compelling though as the slow moving shots filled with slow zooms and long lingering shots from inside the home really help you get absorbed into the sense of dread that Abena is feeling. It’s also a very quiet movie at the start with not a lot of music or dialogue at first but as the movie goes along the sound design grows as she becomes more unsettled with the house they’re staying in.
Kwame and Abena’s relationship is clearly strained from their very arrival at the house and there is seemingly some distance between them in terms of where they are with the grieving process. Kwame pushes Abena to try and move on from whatever happened but she is clearly struggling to do so as she begins sensing an uneasy presence at the home which Kwame doesn’t sense. Conversations between the two have this coldness to them that it’s hard not to feel sympathetic for what Abena is going through as Kwame is seemingly dismissing what she is feeling. This is elevated when their friends Anthony and Vivian, a hypnotist, come over for a visit. Without giving everything away, hypnotism as a means of overcoming grief comes into play and sets up a third act that still has me both questioning what exactly happened but also deeply moved by the portrayal of such complex emotions.
Accompanying all of this is a sound design that along with the camera work stood out as the highlights of the movie. It’s subtle at the start but as things get more unsettling for Abena the sounds and music definitely help put you into her mindset. There’s two sequences in particular with a drum (one of which is cleverly diegetic) that had my heart racing. The sounds of the home as well deserve a highlight as the prolonged silence of the opening acts really allows the slow building sound design to flourish in the final acts when the sounds get more vibrant.
Harry Owens has done something truly remarkable here with The Unsettling by crafting a grounded and quite nuanced haunted house movie that explores a lot of complex emotions and themes. The central performance of Zephani Idoko and the score by Holly Amber Church really help elevate the relatively simple but highly emotional narrative. It’s a slow building and highly intimate story that provides little in the way of answers but it also explores a lot of tough questions that has had me thinking long after the credits have rolled.