Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Films of 2001: The Others

The Others (2001) is a stylish and emotionally affecting horror film all about one thing: selective exposure.  

For those who want a specific definition of that term, selective exposure is an “individual’s tendency to favor information which reinforces their pre-existing views while avoiding contradictory information.

In the case of The Others, a widower, Grace (Nicole Kidman) believes she possess all the answers in her life; answers brought to her by experience, her religious upbringing, and by Catholic dogma. However, in the course of the film, Grace comes to understand that she does not possess the sense of knowledge or control over her life that she believes she does.

Specifically, she keeps interpreting her life -- and the lives of her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley) -- in terms of her faith’s precepts. In doing so, she refuses to see what’s really happening in her home, because the truth exists outside her pre-existing perceptual set, the invisible luggage she carries with her.

In short, she’s in denial. She denies what she did. And she denies that her existence now contradicts her faith.

Grace’s journey in the film is one in which she is forced from her bubble of selective perception to countenance a larger, more mysterious (and less certain…) world. 

The most remarkable quality about The Others is that, via Alejandro Amenabar’s direction and blocking choices, the visualizations reflect Grace’s spiritual journey.

Grace knowingly (and obtusely) keeps her children in the dark of an old country estate; always keeping the curtains drawn to block out sunlight. Similarly, Grace only keeps one room -- out of dozens -- unlocked in the house at any given time. This behavior also suggests her limitations as a thinker. She keeps all data locked away, in small boxes, exploring only small, separate pieces, so as to maintain the integrity of her world view.

Critics and film scholars have long compared The Others to a horror film of 1999, The Sixth Sense, because both productions end with a twist or revelation about the nature of the main characters. However, The Others establishes its own artistic identity ably.  

For example, the film obsesses on the impediments that Grace creates for herself and her children. Those impediments might fall under the umbrella category of “mental rigidity,” but are visualized in the films in terms of brick-and-mortar – or tangible -- boundaries and barriers, whether they be iron gates, endless fog, locked doors, or sight-impairing curtains. 

The house is therefore a reflection of Grace’s mental state (denial). The Sixth Sense is quite wonderful in its own approach, but it doesn’t use the same creative device to vet its narrative.

The twist at the end of The Others represents the long-awaited destination for Grace; a place where she can no longer hide or block the truth.  All the boundaries that she has controlled and enforced, fall way.

And what is the truth Grace faces? That she acted in a way that is utterly contradictory to her stated belief system and faith. The closed gates, the locked doors, and the closed curtains, finally, aren’t enough to maintain her illusions of belief.  She can no longer hide from herself.

“I think that sometimes the world of the dead gets mixed up with the world of the living.”

In Jersey, in 1945, a widower, Grace Stewart (Kidman) lives in a vast, dark estate with her photo-sensitive children, Anne (Mann) and Nicholas (Bentley). 

When the servants disappear without a trace, Grace welcomes three new servants: Mrs. Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes), and mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). They once worked at the house, many years earlier, and are familiar with the grounds and the estate.

Nonetheless, Grace drills them about keeping the curtains closed, and unlocking only one room at a time.  She is adamant that these precautions are necessary for the safety of the children. The servants agree to her strange terms.

Soon, Anne detects frightening intruders in the house, including a boy named Victor. Grace becomes convinced that the house is haunted, and finds a book of the dead in the upstairs room as well.  This discovery unnerves her, and she is convinced that Victor is the ghost of a dead child who once dwelt in their home.

As the disturbances caused by the Others or intruders grow worse, Grace resolves to seek help from the local priest. She leaves the house and finds herself lost in a realm of endless mist.  There, she encounters her presumed dead husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston).  He returns home, and is disturbed to learn from Anne that Grace is growing more unhinged and temperamental by the day.

After Charles inexplicably leaves the home, Grace attacks Anne; seeing the child not as her daughter, but as a sightless old woman.

A terrified Anne attempts to flee the house with Nicholas, even as Grace makes a startling discovery about Mrs. Mills and the other servants…

“I don’t like fantasies; strange ideas…”

From the first frames of The Others, it is clear that Grace -- whose name means “God’s favor”-- views the world through the orderly (and indeed, comforting) perspective of a devout Catholic. She recounts to her children the story of Genesis, when only God existed, and she exerts a strong sense of knowledge and control in terms of her surroundings. For instance, Grace reports that she doesn’t like “fantasies” or “strange stories” and later, is described as only “believing” what she has been “taught.”

In other words, Grace is a character believed “favored” by God, who dislikes mysteries, and who depends on the precepts of faith to understand the mysterious of existence. From her name and her recitation of the Genesis story, to her drilling of the children about the various realms of Hell or limbo, it is clear that Grace exists in a world in which she feels she knows the answers; or controls the answers.

We see this sense of control played out in the actual physical lay-out of the house. Grace does not allow the children to move about freely (because of their condition), and the result is that she controls the opening and closing of portals.  She controls, as well, the light that enters the house, by keeping the drapes closed. Even controls sound, locking the piano so others can’t play it.

Her children dwell in the dark of the house, however, the dark imposed and continued by their mother’s ministrations.

The gate outside the house -- which looks a lot like the vertical bars you might find in a prison -- further seal off Grace’s realm from outside influence and beliefs.

The only interlopers allowed into Grace’s realm of order are the three servants, and, again, Grace seeks to rigorously control them and their actions too. She questions them. She monitors them. She berates them for failing to live up to her rules.

As The Others develops, however, Grace gradually loses control over her sense of order. She hears children crying in the house, despite the safeguards she has erected to keep Nicholas and Anne in their specific (locked) rooms. 

She also ignores the cognitive dissonance she faces by believing in the miracles of the Bible, but at the same time refusing to believe in the possibility of ghosts. She doesn’t see Heaven and Hell, or a God-created universe as a “fantasy,” but ghosts she dismisses as such out of hand.  We see then that Grace chooses that which is acceptable to believe, and that which she decides is fantasy. 

But more and more, Grace’s selective exposure of facts and details failed. She is continually confronted with things that make her question more and more the controlled existence she patrols. She encounters her husband in the endless mist. And he should be dead

And she reckons with the macabre Book of the Dead, which represents a belief system about death (and the afterlife) different from her own.

Finally, these challenges to Grace’s epistemic closure prove too much to bear, and Grace loses the control she covets.  Victor’s parents rip down the curtains all at once, allowing “light” to flood into her dark house. Instead of remaining locked, doors inexplicably open; refusing to keep secrets closed off, hidden away.

In the film’s last moments, Grace must reckon with the truth that she can’t control and can no longer hide; the fact that her carefully constructed reality is full of lies and untruths. She believes she is a good Christian, and yet she has murdered her own children, and committed suicide. 

Furthermore, there is no apparent Heaven in the afterlife. Rather, she and the children continue to exist in the house, an existence that will have no apparent end.  She thus closes out the film thoroughly humbled. Grace even admits to Anne, “I am no wiser than you are.”

This is the first uncertainty the character has expressed. From her recitation of the universe’s creation, to her insistence about the shape of purgatory and Hell, to her refusal to accept her husband’s death (or her own, murderous actions), Grace has seen only what she wished to see.  Now, as the film ends, she realizes that the control she sought was an illusion, and that she has no great wisdom or insight about what lays ahead.

Therefore, The Others concerns selective exposure, and the way it deludes us, as human beings; how we choose to perceive things only which fit into our acceptable world view. Grace “remakes” the house to her world view, only to see it change to reflect, finally, her new reality.  The new house, which features light and open rooms, forces her to acknowledge what she did, and tried so hard to keep hidden; keep buried.

My biggest concern with The Others, as a work of art, involves the necessity of keeping the audience (as well as the children), in the dark for so long. Much like The Sixth Sense (1999), or Ghost (1990), or any film in which the main characters are actually “already dead,” the filmmakers have to cheat, essentially, to keep the illusion of a living reality that resembles our own. Here, ghosts hold keys, lamps and shotguns. They sleep in beds, eat food, and drink tea, and so forth.  In other words, the ghosts act in such a way that it is impossible for us to reckon with the idea that they are not alive, at least until the big reveal comes.

If one dismisses this concern, and gazes instead at The Others as a story simply about a woman who works hard not to see her true nature (and her crime, as well), it is possible to understand the film as a remarkable character piece.

Grace is so strong-willed that she nearly makes the afterlife bend to her “beliefs.”  Of course, in the end, that is a vain strategy, and Grace must reckon with what she has done, and what she actually is. Her pat, now-disproven views can’t guide her to salvation.

The last moments of the film suggest, ironically, that Grace still covets mortal things; reminding the children that the house is theirs and will remain so forever, no matter what “others” may come.

As the camera pulls away from them, retreating through a window, there’s the feeling that Grace has fashioned for herself and her children the very limbo she wished so much for them to avoid.  This house will be their prison for eternity.  It will not be the prison of denial, as it was before, but it will nonetheless be a prison; one that will house them and block them from change (and therefore growth) for time immemorial.

Watching the film again in 2017, I did not find The Others particularly scary, but I admired, more than before, Nicole Kidman’s strong performance.  She creates a character named Grace who lives, ironically, in the clear absence of grace.

The Others succeeds to the degree it does, because it isn’t really a film about a haunted house. Instead, it’s about a haunted person; one who bends a large, dark house to her will and tries to reshape reality itself so as to avoid seeing the terrible thing she did to her children, and to herself.  

The miracle is that Grace succeeds for so long, before the scales fall from her eyes.


  1. Being Catholic myself, I always interpreted the setting of the film as Purgatory or Limbo (which was taught pre-Vatican II when this film takes place but was disavowed some years afterwards).

    Clearly the film spells out that that Grace and the children are trapped in this spiritual no man's land. Grace killed the children and committed suicide so she is unfit for heaven. The children can't enter heaven either because they admit they would deny God if placed in a position where their lives would be at stake.

    This interpretation of the characters being stuck in Purgatory (as opposed to haunting the house) is complicated by the traditional definitions of purgatory (a place of suffering where the souls are purged of their sins through the prayers of those left behind or upon the Final Judgement at the end of time) and Limbo (a place where unbaptized souls go). The destination of all souls in Purgatory is Heaven eventually...no souls in Purgatory will go to hell.

    The case for Purgatory rests on the idea that a soul tinged with sin is unfit for Heaven. Grace committed the terrible acts in a moment of madness, not hate. In pre-Vatican II days (where this film was set), someone who commits a mortal sin like murder or who commits suicide will go to Hell. Post Vatican II, the teaching was modified with the understanding that a merciful God would not send someone with an extreme mental condition to hell, even if they did commit murder because they were not really in their right mind. Likewise, a merciful God would not send the children to hell because they have denied God, but rather allows them to be purged of their sin during their stay in Purgatory because they were too young to make an informed choice. Therefore all three will remain in Purgatory until the end of time or eternity until the Final Judgement.

    What about the Father? He remains with them for awhile after coming out of the mist but suddenly disappears in the morning. I think his soul was briefly in Purgatory, therefore allowing him interact with the soul of his wife and children. He is alarmed to discover that his wife has become unhinged in his absence. The implication is that his death on the battlefield unhinged Grace's mind and killed the children and herself in a fit of madness. The father's sudden disappearance might indicate that he was allowed into Heaven much more quickly than Grace or the children.

    I don't write this to preach but to enlighten those individuals who might not understand the Catholic Church's teachings about such things (which are admittedly complicated).

  2. I agree with your interpretation, nevertheless the movie is still an overrated and boring piece of moviemaking.