As “The Keeping Hours” begins, seven years have passed since the death of Mark (Lee Pace) and Elizabeth’s (Carrie Coon) child. Six years have passed since the once-happy couple split. These are unpleasant anniversaries, which doesn’t make them any less difficult to remember, or to forget.
In the interim, Elizabeth has done what she could to move forward: She buried herself in writing a book, detailing her experiences with death and rebirth. On the other side, she found a new husband, two children, and a white picket fence. Her picturesque vision of adulthood has remained intact.
Conversely, Mark has slipped into a deep depression. He jogs mindlessly in place on his treadmill, until it’s time to clock in at work. His eyes appear permanently bloodshot. When his secretary’s children emerge in the office, he’s visibly angry, and it’s not because giggling kids are unfit to be in the work place. The specter of his deceased son has yet to fade away.
Director Karen Moncrieff (“The Dead Girl,” “Blue Car”) is quick to offer misdirection. The opening scene of “The Keeping Hours” — the Blumhouse title just won the narrative feature audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival — is a joyous wedding, in which Mark and Elizabeth exchange epigrammatic vows. They spend no time with flowery language, no profuse proclamations of their love. What they have doesn’t need to be articulated; it’s in plain sight. What isn’t is the accident that led to killing of their child.
By the time the film returns to us, Mark and Elizabeth are reunited by the appearance of their child. Naturally, they are stunned by the supernatural: the floating ghost that has the look and feel of the offspring they birthed into existence. Mark and Elizabeth are quick to accept the impossibility of what they’re experiencing. It doesn’t matter that what they have no longer is. For a brief time, they’re graced with his presence. The prologue.
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Written by Rebecca Sonnenshine (“The Haunting of Molly Hartley”), the script balances Mark and Elizabeth’s fantasies with their realities. Both adults are aware of the peculiarity of the situation. So is the audience. What starts as frustrating turns into heartbreaking. Sonnenshine has crafted a story about loss in the form of a “horror romance,” where the most horrifying element is the apparent resurrection of a child.
Moncrieff takes a practical approach here. She doesn’t get bogged down in tedious tactics meant to unnerve. Jump cut are few and far between. The score (by Adam Gorgoni, “Starting Out in the Evening”) is diverse enough to where orchestral pieces don’t grow redundant.
Where the film falls short, at times, is in Pace and Coon’s representation of grieving and renewal. Whether it’s an issue in the dialogue or direction, the actors struggle to break outside the same emotional quadrant. They’re mostly unrelentingly sad for reasons that are mostly unknown. The divorce came about because Mark burrowed into bottles of whiskey, while Elizabeth grappled with the absence of their newborn. The roles assigned to Mark and Elizabeth are generic. We’re not given the finer points of their dynamic, the nuanced idiosyncrasies that makes them them.
When they relapse into each other’s embrace, it’s not only unsurprising, but uninteresting. Sonnenshine telegraphs the emotions of her characters. For a situation that is remarkable by any measurement of human existence, Mark and Elizabeth become quotidian. The reigniting spark that is the specter of their child is short-lived.
There’s clearly a kernel of a good idea in “The Keeping Hours.” The baseline concept is what makes the proceedings intermittently compelling. It’s hard to be entirely unmoved by Mark and Elizabeth’s situation. To have a second chance, no matter how brief, with your deceased child is a beautiful miracle. As an audience member with a beating heart, you’re going to want to sympathize, to be affected.
At the film’s best, Moncrieff skillfully pulls at the heartstrings, delivering pathos in full effect, such as when Mark and Elizabeth stare blankly into the distance, as the incandescent sun creates a reflection in the sea. You will smile when the three of them — Mark, Elizabeth, the ghost of their child — are reconnected, once more, in familial bliss.
There are tender moments in “The Keeping Hours.” But mostly there are missed opportunities. When it misses its mark, which is more often than not, it’s hard to wonder why it made you feel anything in the first place.