Here Before (2021): ‘SXSW’ Review – A Gloomy Psychological Noir with an Excellent Central Performance
The grief produced by the loss of a child is irreparable. It’s like losing what is essentially a part of yourself- while there are parents who heal with time, reflections do return sometimes. First-time filmmaker Stacey Gregg takes these reflections, writes a tightly crocheted thriller about mental health, and turns into a gloomy psychological noir, which is what Here Before (2021) exactly is. The plot revolves around a housewife Laura, who has recently moved into the new house. She is instantly charmed by the little girl next door, Megan. This warm human connection turns into an obsession when Megan’s unsettling behavior haunts Laura with the memories of her own daughter, who had died a few years ago.
The narrative takes a horrifying turn when Laura gets convinced about a supernatural air surrounding Megan which has to do with her deceased daughter. Here Before has a vast potential for an entertaining and fast-paced horror-thriller, but Stacey chooses a more toned-down, albeit gloomier path: that of a psychological noir. This helps a great deal because it makes us look through Laura’s punctured conscience and study her obsession with the lens of grief and empathy. On that, the film chooses a laid-back method of storytelling throughout its 83-minute running time, and that mostly works in favour of the film’s initial pacing.
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The world-building in Here Before is tense and imaginative to the most. There’s something uncanny about the Northern Ireland setting that the film chooses to proceed in, especially the tightly packed rooms in both of the houses. Yes, it has to be the aesthetic and architectural obviousness, but the genre and thematic contexts seem to inform the production design. And that is, in a way, a solid sign for an eerie piece of horror. The costume design too veers from the understated nudes to bright colors, to rich earth tones, which heightens the drama and tension of the central plot. Chloë Thomson’s cinematography is dark and cold, yes, but it’s also gorgeously moody, which helps because the film is not as empty as the title suggests. It’s an intrinsically physical film about grief and motherhood at its core.
However, this is also an unmistakably flawed film. When the thriller paves the way for horror, Here Before becomes so stylized that it conclusively becomes boring. After a brilliant first thirty minutes, the film somehow takes an all too familiar path, which results in a monotonous and painfully slow last thirty minutes. The film does affect you emotionally, but those parts are few and far in between. The climax, although logical and organic, seems far-fetched and distanced from the rest of the narrative. The supporting performances which surround the leads (Laura and Megan) are weak in their form.
Here Before works best in the parts where it delves deeper into Laura’s obsession. There are no pompous technicalities applied here, and it’s not even smart writing that I’m talking about: there’s an effortless female gaze that comes to play with Stacey Gregg’s competent and brisk filmmaking choices. The debutant is intelligent in her treatment of maternal instinct. I was particularly intrigued by those bits where Laura’s determination to get to the bottom of it becomes all-consuming exhaustion. Not all of the film has been executed the same way.
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However, Here Before benefits from the extraordinary central performance of Andrea Riseborough. As Laura, her mundanity also comes with a sense of maturity, and that blends comfortably with the film’s atmosphere. Every frame where fear and discomfort envelopes her conscience is terrific, singularly because of the sharp presence she turns out to be. She gets that she is vital to the film’s darker proceedings, but she transforms them into scenes of gentle insight. This levitates the film through most of its flaws, making it a compact thriller.