BUFF 2023: ‘The Unheard’ won’t make many (sound) waves

The Unheard

Editor’s Note: Nick Johnston attended this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival (it was a short commute), reviewing a selection of the films presented over several days at The Brattle in Cambridge. Be sure to revisit all our continued BUFF coverage, from 2023 and years past.

On paper, it seems like Jeffery A. Brown’s The Unheard would have a ton going for it. Brown’s coming off of the success of The Beach House, which was a well-received and stylish horror directorial debut for the longtime location manager. It’s got a fantastic lead in Lachlan Watson, they of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Chucky fame. And, moreover, it’s got a very fun genre premise: Think The Eyes of Laura Mars mixed with a little bit of Frequency and that one segment with the robot eye in the second V/H/S film. It’s a decent recipe for a little Shudder surprise that you’d find one night post-dab mid-buffalo-wings-binge, get the pants scared off of you bad enough that you couldn’t sleep at all afterward, and then spend the next five years trying to convince your dumb buddies just to shell out the $6 for a subscription so they could just go ahead and fucking watch the thing already. But the problem is that The Unheard, especially when viewed on a TV screen, will likely cause you to nod off.

Now, I think few people who watched the movie with me in The Brattle itself — recently renovated with full surround sound, after all — would agree with that thesis. Viewed in a theater, The Unheard is almost punishingly loud in its second hour once shit gets realer than real, but on a shitty television setup in your living room or, worse, a Macbook complete with in-unit speakers, a certain amount of that ambiance is likely to be lost. What you’re left with, ultimately, is a very sedate first hour — which is genuinely very well done, for the most part — that gives way to your typical “supernatural shit drives a person cuh-ray-zee right before they meet them a murderer” storyline. But then again, it’s the very fact that the film is two hours long, being so luxuriously paced to the point that it nearly approaches “Slow Cinema” territory, that really makes it so frustrating.

We meet Chloe (Watson) as she gets off the Red Line in Boston to visit an ENT specialist. She’s been almost totally deaf since she was a girl, when fate decided to unload both barrels on her at once: She contracted meningitis, putting her in a coma for a half-year and causing her to lose her hearing, and her mother vanished from their summer home on the Cape. But there’s a faint light at the end of the tunnel, as her doctor has started up a new trial that may restore her hearing if everything goes right. After the procedure — comparatively mild, all things considered, when you’re dealing with wackadoodle gene therapy — she heads to the Cape, already in the middle of the off-season to start packing up the house that was once a home, before everything went to hell. Her dad’s going to meet her in a couple of weeks, but she’s kind of relishing the chance to just be alone for a bit with her memories and the peace of the space.

That is, at least, until the therapy works. Her hearing comes back in full, and in one of the film’s most genuinely joyous moments, she delights at otherwise mundane sounds: Water streaming from a faucet, a bag of popcorn crackling away in a microwave. But it turns out that this new gift is kind of a blessing and a curse (of course). One night she begins to notice a strange figure standing in a presumably-vacated home, and hears odd sounds — perhaps they’re having some sort of party, she thinks. The sound stays long after the vision disappears, and she soon discovers that it’s localized to a single spot right in the middle of her living room floor. It’s garbled like an old VHS tape, and one can barely understand it. But Chloe’s determined to figure out what the hell it is — after all, she’s got to figure out whether she’s merely going crazy or if her house is, in fact, haunted — and her journey into sound will lead her to uncomfortable realizations about her mother’s vanishing while also putting her in a great amount of danger.

It’s kind of funny to think how Brown really excels during that slow and comparatively dry first hour. He and Watson are tuned into the same emotional frequency, keyed into how Chloe’s depression affects her time on the Cape, with her silence only heightening the uncomfortable estrangement she feels from this place. She’s not just an outsider because of her comparative infamy, after all, given that few people she encounters can communicate in ASL (even her doctor struggles with it) and she’s forced to read lips, with the awkward emphasis on the absence that it entails. It’s surprisingly emotional work, and because of how well Watson connects with their audience, it sets the back-half of the film and its descent into more-clearly genre territory up to fail.

The length is somewhat of an albatross — the central mystery of the film only begins to untangle after the conclusion of that first hour, and the kind of abstraction that Brown favors, while in-sync with the earlier-established goals of the film, winds up disappointing in its lack of clarity. It got so bad at one point during one of the fantastical breakdowns in reality, draped in VHS-static and strobes, that I longed for subtitles, and I’m a defender of how filmmakers like Chris Nolan use dialogue as more of an aesthetic compliment to the overall mix than as the engine of the film’s story. But when all of the threads connect here, you’re left with a sum that’s ultimately less than the parts, no matter how well-crafted they may be.