As it is hard to truly discuss The Others without spoilers, this entry consists both of a spoiler-free review and an analytical essay that contains spoilers.
The score is overused to the point of even being funny, the twist is predictable in spite of also being overused, many plot points are also overused and predictable, and Chekhov has a metaphorical gun that does not go off (and a literal one that does). There are lots of reasons that The Others (2001), my first experience with Alejandro Amenábar, should have been an uncomfortable one. And yet, there was something oddly provocative about the film—at least for a good portion of it.
Nicole Kidman, who plays Grace, a mother waiting for her husband to return from a finished while raising her two children who are allergic to light, gives a flawed but utterly believable performance. She convinces us that she is an unfortunate victim caught up in a psychological trauma, but she also lets on very early that something is not quite right, well before we (or she) know. There’s a virtue in the vice, however, as it puts the psychological horror on us. Amenábar displays a gift for mood, made doubly effective by pitch-perfect lighting and splendid, Victorian sets (the story takes place in the 1940s, but the house pre-dates the 20th century) in every room of the giant mansion. When The Others is pulling strings that make us wonder “is something up here? Is the child crazy, or is the mother?” it is hard not to enjoy, even though it relies almost too much on cliché—the child who knows, the maids who we know are more knowledgeable than they let on, footsteps and voices, etc.
It is thus unfortunate that right when the film reaches its pitch-perfect mood, the gag is up. The Others transitions from a psychological horror to a mystery, one which most audiences will solve long before Grace, thanks to the heavy foreshadowing. As a result, Grace’s sludgy game of catch-up is mostly uninteresting. It is during this second act that the score (by Amenábar himself) is overused. Cheesiness turns suspense into silliness, and it becomes far more rewarding to focus on the always-impressive look of the film. Luckily, Kidman, who descends into impatience and then into fear and finally into madness, finds a way to hold our attention, at least until the conclusion. Still, it’s hard not to dwell on the moments that hint at greatness but never come through.
Essay (contains spoilers):
While the twist, that the family and the maids are dead and the “intruders” are the actual residents, is predictable, there is nonetheless a level of intrigue that it raises that outclasses The Sixth Sense. That said, The Others very firmly wants to ensure that the twist does not come out of nowhere: Alluding to the end, we are told repeatedly that “The death of a loved one can lead people to do the strangest things,” and that it has been “a week” since a lot of strange occurrences (the heavy fog set in, the birds stopped singing, the postman’s last visit). We can thus infer that the family has been dead for one week. We also have one scene of each child “breathing heavily” and several references to Grace’s migraines, symbolic indicators of their deaths (being smothered and a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, respectively).
That there is an excess of dialogue that gives away the ending is unfortunate, but predictability should does not ruin a movie, lest we would have no reason to ever watch something twice. The biggest problem with The Others is that it chooses to be a mind-bending mystery instead of a unique coming-of-age story (one that would pre-date The Lovely Bones by quite some time). There is the obvious message about not keeping your children “in the dark,” as is seen in the literal condition of the children, who will die with prolonged exposure to light. Ironically, it is not until the children learn that they are already dead that they are literally brought into the light. This should have been the tip of the iceberg, but The Others puts such little emphasis on the children (especially Nicholas) in comparison to Grace that it is the extent of the complexity. With constant readings and questionings of Biblical passages, including a hand-drawn sequence that accompanies one such passage that opens the film, there are means of exploring the children’s understanding of life, death and afterlife.
Early in the film, Grace and her children have a conversation about “the four levels of hell.” They linger on “children’s limbo,” a place they would go if they lied to the extent of denying Christ. Shortly thereafter, Grace gives Nicholas a rosary, telling him to squeeze it when he is afraid. This rosary never comes back in the film (it is the un-fired gun I spoke of in my review), despite its explicit purpose being a sufficient way of Nicholas coming to terms with the fact that he is dead. It is suggested that the children are in that level of hell, but Grace simply replies “I don’t know if it exists.” This idea runs against her devoutly Catholic ways throughout the film, but it also downplays a theme that could have been quite effective if it were further explored.
Along with Grace and the children, we know Grace’s husband is dead because he is able to interact with the family. His stay in the film is brief, existing mostly to hint at “that horrible day” where Grace smothered their children (probably the most obvious clue in the film). Still, his place in the film suggests that he is in the same after-life—if there is one—that Grace and the children are. This harkens back to an answer Grace gives at dinner, stating that the good guys in a war go to heaven but the bad guys don’t. Because the house is in Britain, we can safely assume that he fought against the Nazis, yet he ends up in some level of hell anyway. It is highly unlikely that Alejandro Amenábar is advocating Nazi sympathy, especially considering that all other mentions of the war are for more respectable. Instead, it leaves a question about interaction between levels of hell. Grace states that hell is located in the center of the earth, where it is “very, very hot.” Because this does not show up on screen, and because a casualty of war, a mother who killed her children, and their children would all end up in the same circle is unlikely, The Others can be interpreted to reject Biblical ideas of afterlife. Given all the Catholic imagery and spiritual reverence, this is also highly unlikely.
Another, more likely interpretation is that the characters are in purgatory. Even this interpretation, however, falls flat with the very end of the film, where Grace declares that she and her children will never leave the house, but will instead learn to coexist with the living.
With this far more agreeable, more easily supported hypothesis, The Others once again is perfectly positioned to become a tale of the dead, especially the children, coming to terms with their new position in the world. But The Others does not go down this path, suggesting the easier message that the dead are always with us, failing to do any genuine exploring in favor of a more commercial ghost story. The rosary never comes back, the biblical passages are mostly empty, and the husband exists to foreshadow rather than to symbolize. Like the characters throughout the film, we are mostly in the dark, but in the end we do not glimpse the light with them. The Others, for what it is, is not a bad film. Unfortunately, there are hints of a great film that are abandoned for an entertaining film.