Over the past decade, grief has become a popular theme for genre filmmakers. High-profile directors delight in creating traps built from the bars of their characters’ tragedies. And while the best of these films find real catharsis amidst the sadness, others are content to use tragedy as an anchor to drag their characters down to a shocking ending. Given this, the slow twists and turns of Stacey Gregg‘s Here Before are almost radical in their treatment of grief on screen.
Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill) loved someone, and now they hurt. Several years after the death of their daughter, Josie, the couple still struggles to imbue their marriage with the warmth it once had. They’ve been making it work, though, in part thanks to the presence of their son, Tadhg (Lewis McAskie), and the relative peace of the community around them.
So when a new family moves in next door, Laura is curious — but not necessarily upset — to discover that they have a young daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan), who reminds her of her Josie. They strike up an instant friendship, and for a time, Laura is happy to play the part of the doting neighbor. But soon, Megan shares things about the life and death of Josie that she has no business knowing. As the girl’s parents grow concerned about the relationship, Laura must decide how far she is willing to go to unearth the truth about Megan.
For the better part of an hour, Gregg’s film plucks at individual story threads, slowly backing Laura into a corner where the only path out leads to her ruination. “I understand that I sound crazy,” she tells Brendan, “because I can hear myself.” Laura is convinced that Megan must be the reincarnation of her daughter — or at least in communication with her spirit — and when all attempts to distance herself from the young girl fail, she resigns herself to pursuing the truth at any cost.
Like the best horror films, this setup allows Here Before to operate under a near-palatable cloud of dread. Even as our empathy for Laura grows, we know something terrible is bound to happen, and most likely at her hands. Gregg heightens this sense of impending doom by stripping the film of the many little touches so often found in this breed of horror. Save for a late dream sequence — set to the jarringly cheerful melodies of the 1960s sunshine pop band The Free Design — much of what we see in the film feels possible, only adding to our sense of unease.
Riseborough has long made easy work of challenging material. Her performance in Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror film Possessor earned accolades as one of the best of 2020. In Here Before, she takes on a complicated task: lure the audience into a complex process of grief and paranoia without ever tipping the scale into outright spiritualism. The horror of the first hour is that Laura knows she’s slipping. She knows that her grief is taking her down a dark path, but she still has the presence of mind to remember her obligation to her living child. “He’s safe with me,” she tells her husband. We believe her.
In horror, the line between bereavement and mental illness is often nonexistent. Tragedy begets tragedy, and characters struggling to overcome their grief are often resigned to hopeless endings. Riseborough’s Laura offers us something considerably more complex. She establishes and honors boundaries with the people she cares about. She’s also not afraid to ask for help when she begins to feel a bit overwhelmed. And when the forces around her are finally revealed, Laura finds the truth to be somehow worse than anything she could possibly imagine.
Strip Here Before down to its emotional core, and this is a film about one woman’s struggles to process her grief. It may lack the splashiness favored by so many horror films and thrillers of the moment, but thanks to the work of both Gregg and Riseborough, it more than delivers on its human failings. Sometimes, the small ways we let our loved ones down are scarier than any monster we can imagine.
Speaking of the Here Before Ending…
The rest of this review contains SPOILERS for the ending of Here Before.
For most thrillers, the boldness of its resolution becomes the big talking point. For Here Before, the sudden reversal of its supernatural elements is sure to spark conversation. As Laura digs deeper into the things that Megan knows, she stumbles upon a shocking truth: Megan is actually the biological daughter of Brendan, and Laura’s new neighbors have chosen to move next door with both his knowledge and blessing.
Some might argue that Gregg’s script abandons its ethereal storytelling in favor of simple plot machinations, ruining a compelling ghost story with a Lifetime Movie of the Week hook in its final moments. I disagree. The tragedy of Here Before is not that Laura is surrounded by people who mean her harm. It’s that those closest to her grow weary of her trauma, actively choosing to leave Laura behind when her grief resolves slower than they would like.
Brendan may act the part of the compassionate husband, but his belief that his path towards acceptance is the right one — a point Laura makes in an earlier fight — leads to a series of disastrous decisions. It’s a cruel form of projection, accusing a loved one of abandoning her family at the same time you are actively gaslighting her to keep her from finding out about the truth of your biological daughter. Given that the operatic stylings of films like Ari Aster’s Hereditary are now the norm within arthouse horror, it is refreshing, and no less harrowing, to see the film resolve itself in such a mundane manner.
This also makes Here Before a companion piece to films like The Invisible Man and The Lodge, two 2020 horror releases that used gaslighting as the basis for one character’s slow descent into madness. What makes Here Before so different are the stakes: Laura’s husband is not conventionally (cinematically) abusive, just careless. His willingness to prioritize his own desires ahead of his troubled wife makes the stakes of Here Before dangerously close to the acts of emotional aggression many people face from their partners. And those kinds of universal stakes can and should be regarded as anything but anticlimactic.