Jaclyn Bartlett says The Unsettling is full of thought-provoking ideas about trauma, its impact on relationships, and how difficult it can be to escape.
The Unsettling is an intriguing horror mystery with plenty of drama. Written and directed by Harry Owens, the film provides a fascinating exploration of trauma through the story of a couple who relocate to Los Angeles after experiencing a tragic event, only to be haunted by a spirit residing in their new home. It follows Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba), a couple hoping to escape their traumatic pasts.
This event they’ve suffered is teased through flashbacks and dream sequences. After settling in, the couple begins to feel an eerie presence in the house, experiencing strange occurrences: loud knocking, doors opening on their own, and the cold that permeates their home—targeting Abena specifically, torturing her with terrifying visions. We see the impact of their trauma and how traumatic experiences follow people, regardless of how hard they try to avoid their pain.
Owens explores several intriguing themes, but the most prevalent is trauma and its repercussions, including how it lingers, affects people differently, and impacts relationships. Abena and Kwame are each influenced by trauma in distinct ways. Abena experiences recurring flashbacks and nightmares. She is also quiet and withdrawn, making it clear that she is suffering.
Kwame, on the other hand, seems fine on the surface. He disregards Abena’s worries and keeps a constant playful attitude, but he uses his comedy and optimistic spirit as a coping mechanism. Abena comments on this, telling him “everything is a joke to you” in multiple variations throughout the film. Abena struggles to move forward, while Kwame is desperate to start anew. Perhaps this is why the entity residing in their new home targets her. The haunting represents her inability to cope and the cycle of anguish she’s trapped within.
It begins to strain their relationship, made evident to us through cleverly subtle dialogue and brilliant acting on the part of Idoko and Bamba. The dialogue feels natural and authentically represents a couple slowly growing apart. While they are not openly arguing with one another, small comments about Abena’s cooking, Kwame’s grandmother, and disagreements about going out or having guests over make it clear that their relationship is in conflict. Their stellar performances add to the film’s tension.
When their friends Vivian (Libby Munro) and Anthony (Benedikt Sebastian) visit, the awkwardness is palpable. It is clear to the guests and audience that something is wrong with the couple. The actors' performances effortlessly capture feelings of discomfort, showing that malevolent spirits aren’t the only thing making this film “unsettling.”
The film boasts several eerie moments but nothing overtly terrifying. Suspense builds by allowing the audience to see only glimpses of the spirit haunting the house, allowing us to make frightening speculations about what could be lurking offscreen. Being unable to see the danger increases the film’s intensity and makes it more mysterious.
However, the promising terror is decreased by the slow-moving plot. It takes a long time to get into the action, with numerous long scenes of character interactions that don’t add much to the story. Many questions are left unanswered. It’s never evident what’s haunting them, and the details of the tragic event that caused them to relocate are never shared.
The Unsettling offers a compelling take on the side effects of trauma, showing that it’s not easy to escape your past. The writing and performances perfectly convey the devastating impact that trauma has on relationships and how it will consume you. While the story moves slowly, the thought-provoking themes and eerie moments keep the film entertaining and enjoyable.
The Unsettling was screened at the Chattanooga Film Festival on June 23-28, 2022.