The Unseen: Family Secrets and The Undead in Chicago-Set Thriller

Malevolent family dynamics, and those lurking in the otherworld, threaten a young man at the center of killer thriller.

7 mins read

The Unseen, a thriller about a young man tormented by supernatural entities and an overachieving father, has as much on its mind about malevolent family dynamics as it does those lurking in the otherworld. In a Chicago-set production from a screenplay by actress-producer Jennifer A. Goodman and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Vincent Shade, both must ultimately be confronted. 

If we look to such recent, family-centric thrillers as Jennifer Kent’s 2014 chiller The Babadook, featuring Essie Davis as a beleaguered mother facing the demon haunting her young son, or Ari Aster’s disturbing 2018 debut Hereditary, in which Toni Collette and son Alex Wolff contemplated loss of sanity amidst familial secrets (and, just maybe, a Rosemary’s Baby-esque Satanic cabal), the notions of families as adversaries and protectors often prove hair-raising hooks in “elevated” thrillers. 

In The Unseen, credit Goodman for peering into a similar hell of paternal instability and adolescent pressure in a picture starring RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad) as a would-be future attorney living in the shadow of his (to put it mildly) demonstratively controlling father, played by a terrific William Mark McCullough (American Made) in a performance outward charisma and internal fury. His controlling patriarch looms large over Mitte’s Tommy Olson, the “loser” son following in the footsteps of his disapproving, hotshot lawyer father, who early in the film dresses his son down publicly during a college criminal law class lecture.

While Tommy has yet to take the bar exam, he is able to gain employment as an entry level clerk in a Chicago law firm, gophering for cutthroat partner Kristen Jude (Candice Rose), who assigns him unsolved cases that could potentially drum up new business. Despite his father’s esteemed reputation, Tommy is on his way to being a self-made man if only he could get past his lingering issues. Those issues, as played by Mitte, reveal a semi-functioning state of distress due to years of verbal abuse. Compounding the trauma is the film’s other course of business— underworld spirits that just won’t seem to leave him alone, offering him visions of bloody murder and, in David Cronenberg fashion, dollops of disfiguring body horror hallucinations (superbly crafted by special effects make-up artist Heather Vogt). 

At home, Tommy is supported by mother Meredith (Sue Kremin) and older sister Lindsay (Goodman), and also has a younger “influencer” sister Kali (Ava Bianchi), and when dad isn’t around they appear a pretty relatable modern family, bickering around the breakfast table and sharing casual concerns about the on-the-loose neighborhood killer, whose stakes are established in a visceral opening scene, which reminded me of 1985’s Jagged Edge.

Shade and Goodman spin a complicated narrative web—perhaps more domestically complex than the ghosts can keep up with—which includes revelations of abuse and domestic violence, family estrangement, “trauma processing” therapy, flashbacks and more that won’t be revealed here. Goodman works hard to contextualize the genre elements—sophisticated visual effects of apparitions, rendered with the slick technique of a bigger budget film—in the realism of psychological damage.

One of Goodman’s clever angles here is the age-old notion of a underachieving child unable to fulfill parental expectations, and Mitte does well as a new workforce entrant—you can see hundreds of hungry young men like him in every major city working for professional services firms, jockeying up the ladder—here lacking confidence and fumbling his way under the family pressure to achieve. Is there a link between his spooky spectral visions and a buried past crime? Where is his relationship with office mate Olivia (appealing Kimberly Michelle Vaughn) headed? Who is dark-cloaked figure on a killing spree and why have the victims been targeted? Given these multiple agendas, The Unseen can be a busy experience, but in one very good scene that finds Goodman and Mitte negotiating the escalating terror, the screenwriter-actress brings substantive sibling gravitas with direct dramatic focus.

The Unseen is a slow burn and requires patience; you won’t guess the mystery’s secrets as its cards are kept close until the final sequence. For most of the film’s running time, Mitte is required to be in a state of confusion, emotions running high—it’s almost all peaks and few respites, and it can feel a bit of a trial despite the star’s obvious commitment. This pays off in a final act father-son confrontation scene in which McCullough, who is superb in stature and intensity each minute onscreen, displays vicious fury.

Produced by Goodman’s Chicago-based Lakefront Pictures, The Unseen was shot by DP Ryan Atkins, who gives the film a number of distinct visual treatments, and his use of a handheld (sometimes canted) camera, cool blue sheens and shadowy darkness in the film’s horror sequences keep the proceedings visually interesting. While the picture was made in Chicago, Atkins’ camera renders the familiar milieu as one of foreboding disorientation.

Goodman closes the The Unseen on a final revelation followed by a shivery closing shot, which is both unexpected and cut at just the right moment. What happens to Tommy after the picture’s conclusion is up for debate, but Mitte’s portrait suggests the lingering impact of family abuse on self-esteem and the psyche may be ultimately more threatening than intrusions from the undead.

The Unseen is currently available on streaming and VOD.

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