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What Remains review: Psychological Scandi drama

A woman wears a dark yellow top in the film What Remains

Writer-director Ran Huang’s What Remains is a well-acted psychological character study that gets overshadowed by an overstuffed narrative.

Director: Ran Huang
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Run Time: 126′
US Release: June 21, 2024 in US theaters & VOD
UK Release: July 5, 2024 in select UK cinemas; August 5, 2024 on digital platforms

What Remains is a Scandi-noir-esque film that, much like its counterparts, isn’t looking to be flashy. It’s almost purposefully vague and drab, with writer-director Ran Huang much more interested in trying to tell a psychologically interesting story. Inspired by the life of Sture Bergwall, a man who was once believed to be a serial killer in his native Sweden, it’s a film about the ambiguity of memory and the impact of trauma. It is also, rather unfortunately, a little too muddled to be successful in its endeavours.

Mads Lake (Gustaf Skarsgård, of Oppenheimer) has been a patient in a psychiatric institution for several years after confessing to a series of heinous crimes. But when his new therapist, Anna (Andrea Riseborough, of To Leslie), and the dogged investigating police officer Soren (Stellan Skarsgård, of Dune) want to reinvestigate his crimes ahead of a proposed release, some inconsistencies in his recollections find the three of them attempting to uncover the truth of Mads’ memories, and find out what really happened to his alleged ‘victims’.

Films focused on the psyche of their characters tend to rely on holding an audience’s interest, on their desire to figure out the secrets and work out the puzzles. What Remains has so much going on, narratively speaking, that there’s no shortage of mysteries to ponder and questions to ask. But therein lies its biggest problem. The script, cowritten with Huang by Megan Everett-Skarsgård, is overstuffed to the point of almost being too much. It feels disjointed, muddled at times, and Huang’s commitment to being purposefully vague means it becomes difficult to parse where each character is within their own emotional arc – and just what exactly is going on – as the film progresses.

A man with a purple shirt, long hair and a beard and a woman with brown hair sit at a table looking sad in the film What Remains
What Remains (VMI Worldwide)

Not only is there the main plot thread of Mads’ journey to understand his memories and learn the truth, but it also introduces Anna’s infertility struggles and desperate quest to become a mother, as well as Soren’s struggles with alcoholism and being a reluctantly absentee father. It’s a trifecta of melodrama that’s a little too convoluted to ever be satisfyingly cohesive, especially as the film delves into its third act.

For the pace of What Remains is near glacial at times, with its momentum slowing enough that it runs the risk of alienating audiences drawn in by its thrilling premise as it stumbles towards a resolution it never really provides. Sture Bergwall feels like an inspired choice for a filmmaker interested in telling a psychologically interesting story, but What Remains feels too muddy to do his story justice. An onslaught of trauma and moments of particularly pointed vulgarity don’t encourage pathos or empathy as they should, simply because everything has been dour, stilted and almost deliberately lethargic since the film’s opening scene. It’s hard to summon the necessary will for any sort of emotional connection as it continues in the same vein, and that’s a real shame.

But that’s not to say there aren’t any positives here. Both Skarsgårds and Riseborough deliver incredibly committed performances, their mannerisms and choices feeling purposeful and thought out. They elevate material that is, at its core, rather too simple for the genre, with on-the-nose dialogue and conversations needlessly repeated as scenes drag out longer than they should. It feels like a much tighter edit, with a lot of the fat trimmed off, would have made the world of difference.

And it’s a shame because stylistically, What Remains is an intriguing mix of odd and inspired choices. Sound designer Mika Niinimaa’s heavy reliance on diegetic sound gives the film a raw authenticity, emphasising reality whilst Mads struggles to differentiate between what is real and what isn’t. And cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt manages to capture the moments of Sweden’s rugged beauty, even within such a dull colour palette.

What Remains: Trailer (VMI Worldwide)

But it’s also a film littered with peculiar moments that feel incredibly out of place. For example, a scene in which Anna and Mads are having a conversation inside a car has the sound of the rain almost drown out their dialogue completely and neither actor in focus. It serves to reinforce that feeling of disconnectedness, rather than work as a moment in which the audience can gain some semblance of understanding towards these characters, and encapsulates where exactly What Remains goes wrong.

It feels like the film is the product of a filmmaker who relies a little too heavily on ambivalence and vagueness to the point where it’s no longer as enticing as it should be. Especially considering that the premise of the film could work incredibly well as a psychological-focused character study. Perhaps Huang is trying to be metaphorical with What Remains in an attempt to emphasise the difficulty in untangling trauma, but, rather frustratingly, the end result is a little too off-putting to be successful.

Get it on Apple TV

What Remains opened in US theaters and on demand on June 21, 2024. In the UK, the film will be released in select cinemas on 5 July and on digital from 5 August.

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