There is very little inherently interesting about Things Heard & Seen, a movie about which the strongest emotional response I have had is frustration at the almost gravitational pull that I have towards typing out the title as Things Seen & Heard, having to bodily force myself on the right track every time.Β  Or that the Netflix marketing people have decided that their best play here is to appeal to the "Amanda Seyfried in a serious drama" crowd and make the poster (a transparent head floating over a landscape outlined in orange, which goes directly behind the eyes) a direct rip-off of the post for the 2017 Seyfried vehicle First Reformed. I swear, I'm trying, but sometimes the movie just doesn't give you anything to work with.

What is, maybe, interesting about the film, less as an object to spend 121 glacially-paced minute watching, than as a symptom of How Movies Function Today, is that Things Se Heard & Seen feels like the thing we get when the legendary Netflix Algorithm glitches, for just a bit. The film has been adapted from Elizabeth Brundage's 2016 novel All Things Cease to Appear (an unquantifiably superior title), but it seems to actually exist to fill a square in the "You Also Might Like" section for people who have watched The Hauntings of Hill House and Bly Manor multiple times: it is a combination ghost story and domestic drama, starring recently-minted Netflix royalty Amanda "Mank" Seyfried and the naggingly-recognisable-but-not-for-any-specific-reason James Norton as a married couple going through an especially ugly stretch in the summer, autumn, and winter of 1980, while living in a haunted house.y

I frame it this way deliberately, because to suggest that Things Heard & Seen actually uses the haunting and the toxic marriage to comment on each other would be to give it a benefit of the doubt that it does not, on its own merits, earn. And here's where we get to that glitch algorithm. For the film certainly feels like it ought to function, with all the ineffable artistic grace that can fit under the word "functional". The ingredients are all there. The poster is there. A cast of "well, hey, you're somebody" character actors is there - F. Murray Abraham, Karen Allen, Rhea Seehorn, Netflix young person Natalia Dyer, and a wee tiny appearance by James Urbaniak. The filmmakers whom you have absolutely heard of, and your associations with them are positive albeit not excessively strong, are there, in the form of married writer-directors Sheri Spring Berman & Robert Pulcini, who haven't made anything in the years since 2003's American Splendor that anybody cares about or payed attention to, but they also haven't made anything that would seriously damage that film's (fine, unexceptional but perfectly fine and even creative) reputation. Everything is in place for this to be a perfectly satisfactory piece of movieproduct, except for the film itself.

The big problem, I am fairly certain, is Springer Berman & Pulcini themselves: this has the unmistakable feeling of a horror movie directed by people who were very certain that they were better than horror movies. Indeed, just laying it out there like that and calling Things Heard & Seen a "horror movie" is going too far: if you assume that the presence of ghosts are ipso facto enough to to make something a horror movie, then sure, but otherwise there's nothing here that does more than resentfully glance in the direction of genre, until the development of the plot forces the filmmakers hands and requires them to actually make that commitment in the third act. Not coincidentally, the third act is where Things Heard & Seen goes from "well, this isn't very good" to "oh my God, this is awful", largely because it has not up until that point been a melodrama at all, and the developments of Norton's character make him an unambigously melodramatic villain in a way that the film hasn't prepared for, and the actor is thoroughly unequipped to execute. At every point, the film prioritises it domestic tensions and character material, but the third act swamps that in a roiling sea of ginned-up bullshit, and Norton was already not doing nearly the work that Seyfried was in keeping that part of the film afloat.

Seyfried is pretty good, at that, certainly not doing anything close to her best work with a role that has been constructed entirely as a series of reactions and so gives her very little room other than to straighforwardly navigate a pre-ordained arc in which a good Catholic girl who married in haste and has since repented at leisure goes from "I don't love my husband as much as I wish I did" to "I am terrified that my husband is a literal psychopath". But she does navigate that arc, hitting the expected signposts with enough of a look of tense, inward-facing doubt and fear that it feels like there's at least some emotion driving it beyond the blank series of shocks that the screenplay has provided to her. The film's story, such as the details matter, is that George Claire (Norton), something of a dilettante - he apparently dabbled in painting before getting bored and dabbling in art and literary criticism - has just managed to wrap up his dissertation and found a placement at a tiny college in upstate New York, which his wife Catherine (Seyfried) approaches with the dogged, artificial optimism of someone who knows that this is happening either way, so it's best to focus on making it happen well. They end up at an old farmhouse With A Secret (Or Two), which George hides from Catherine, all the better to accuse her of just being a panicky nitwit when she starts to speak of things that she has heard. Later, there are also things she sees. And in due course, this puts Catherine in contact with the restless spirits of multiple generations of sad wives who have had lousy shits for husbands, and whom the film goes out of its way to make clear aren't actually scary or dangerous at all, so let's be sure not to do anything within the film to make them even mildly spooky.

The paranormal elements just don't work, and not only because they're not scary; that is not, after all, a requirement, merely a convention. Still, it's awfully hard to pretend that Springer Berman and Pulcini are putting anything like the effort into the haunting scenes that they do into scenes of George chatting with school administrators, or Catherine visiting the historical society, or even just, like, establishing shots. The film is not, in general, heavy on style - right at the start, there's a big splashy tracking shot through the Claires' New York City apartment on their daughter's birthday, and it's a gesture replicated absolutely nowhere else in the film, and itself feels kind of like an algorithmic requirement - and what it's best at is capturing the stillness of old houses in the Hudson River Valley and the crispness of the air and blue sky around them. There's a certain emptiness that the film picks up as a result of that, but it's persistently used to accentuate the growing sense of isolation that Catherine feels as George becomes more aggressive in his attempts to cut her off from the world; it's certainly never used to create any kind of sense of the spirit world intruding into the world of the living.

And so, a film that might have worked, not exceptionally well, but enough that you couldn't complain, as a domestic thriller, keeps screeching to a halt to have thirty seconds of glum, ineffective ghosts scenes. And then falls apart altogether in the final third. There is, I suppose, an audience for Things Heard & Seen, and I cannot imagine that audience including anyone but Amanda Seyfried diehards; neither fans of ghost stories nor people who just like watching upsetting domestic turbulence have much to extract from this film that combines those things to their mutual detriment.