An exquisitely crafted exploration of grief and mental anguish, “The Unsettling” is an impressive, thought-provoking debut from Harry Owens.
There’s a subgenre of horror to which The Unsettling belongs, where supernatural or horror events serve as an allegory for grief, generational trauma, and/or deteriorating mental health. It’s an increasingly popular type of genre fare expertly represented by modern (often arthouse) films like The Babadook, The Relic, Hereditary, Midsommar, Men, and the criminally overlooked Possum.
This kind of subtle, slow-burning psychological horror is not for everyone. It’s the kind of film where what’s happening beneath the surface — in the mental and emotional state of the characters — is often much more interesting and horrifying than the traditional horror elements being shown onscreen.
No one will fault you if that’s not your cup of tea. But if you’re like me and really gravitate towards character-driven films exploring universal pain and fear, The Unsettling warrants your attention.
After a gripping opening that sets the stage for something, well unsettling, we join Ghanaian couple Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba) in their Uber ride to a lovely property rental in Lose Angeles. There’s a palpable distance between them, both literal and metaphorical.
Though on a vacation getaway with her husband, Abena appears aloof and out of sorts. Perhaps it’s just jetlag and exhaustion from a long trip. But as the couple settles in, we realize that, despite Kwame’s best efforts, Abena’s heart just isn’t it.
Slowly, little by little, it’s revealed that the couple is struggling to recover from a devastating tragedy: the loss of their daughter.
We’re never given many details surrounding her death. We know it’s been two years since she was taken in some kind of accident. There are hints that Abena blames Kwame for their daughter’s death, or at least he believes she does.
While Kwame is upbeat and jovial, Abena is moody and withdrawn.
When an awkward dinner with estranged friends Vivian (Libby Munro) and Anthony (Benedikt Sebastian) puts a spotlight on Abena’s mental state, Kwame becomes frustrated rather than sympathetic.
Why can’t she just get over it? Hasn’t it been long enough? Why does she have to be such a bummer?
It’s heartbreaking to watch Kwame, despite his good intentions, belittle Abena and invalidate her understandable grief and suffering. Her agony is an inconvenience. Kwame just wants to start over and put the past behind them. And he has no patience for Abena’s insistence on reliving the unspeakable horror she can’t escape.
She feels utterly alone, engulfed by her sadness and a loss most of us could not even begin to comprehend.
She doesn’t have the support of her husband, who seems to love her but also resents her for not being the fun-loving, affectionate woman he married. She’s adrift in a strange country, a place Kwame hopes can be the launching pad for a fresh start, while trapped in a stranger’s home that feels empty and devoid of warmth (again, in both the literal and metaphorical sense).
To make matters worse, she’s convinced there’s a dangerous presence in the house that seems intent on causing her harm.
Since her first night in the home, she’s had terrifying nightmares. She can’t sleep; she can’t relax. Something is terribly wrong. She knows it. But just as Kwame can’t understand her grieving process, he likewise can’t see or hear anything Abena is experiencing in the rental.
After dinner, Abena confesses to her therapist friend, Vivian, that she’s not ok.
She thought she was. Before arriving at the home, she felt stable. She kept busy; threw herself into work and hobbies. She occupied her mind and could push those waking nightmares to the back of her brain. But this break, designed to return their lives back to normal, has only given her time to think. And thinking is dangerous when your thoughts are consumed by despair.
Vivian offers a hypnotherapy session to help Abena face her demons and finally put them to rest.
Kwame thinks it’s a joke and disapproves of the idea. He mocks her efforts, prompting Vivian and Anthony to end the evening and head back home. Still, Vivian can’t shake her gnawing fears that Abena is in desperate need of support. So she drops Anthony at home and returns to the house where Abena and Kwame are staying.
Kwame is annoyed, but Abena is relieved to have someone show her some compassion and not make her feel crazy.
Vivian begins hypnosis, opening Abena’s mind to the full force of her torment — and whatever is in that house that wishes to feed off that suffering and destroy everything in its path.
Written and directed by Harry Owens in his feature film debut, The Unsettling is a gorgeously filmed and powerfully acted exploration of the lasting psychological effects of trauma.
On its surface, it’s a haunted house tale, the likes of which you’ve seen a million times before. But that’s just the loose framework for a much deeper and more affecting story about a couple being torn apart by grief and guilt and a mother being mentally torn apart by a loss so profound she can’t recover from it.
The film earns its title by delivering a very slow, methodical burn but keeping audiences invested with an immense amount of atmospheric dread and unease.
Zephani Idoko is mesmerizing and heartbreakingly believable as the anguished Abena, and the magnitude of her distress reverberates in the film’s quietest moments.
The Unsettling delivers layers of depth and foreshadowing from the very first frame. Be prepared to watch this hauntingly beautiful film when you can give it your full attention, free from distractions.
The final climactic moments are dizzying and dread-inducing, but it’s everything leading up to those moments that truly made an indelible impression on me.