Things Heard & Seen, now streaming on Netflix, is many things: a ghost story, a tense family drama, a crime thriller, and a celebration of art history and spiritualism. All of those complex themes come together in the film’s ending, which is understandably confusing if you’re not familiar with 19th century American landscape painter George Innis, and his close connection with 18th century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg.
Innis and Swedenborg’s names are first mentioned early on in Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini’s film, which follows Catherine (Amanda Seyfried, hot off her first Oscar nomination) and George Claire (James Norton) as they trade in their tiny Manhattan apartment for a rickety farmhouse in the Hudson Valley after the latter gets a teaching job at an arts college. Things are a little off from the start, with both Catherine and her daughter Franny (Anna Sophia Heger) sensing a ghostly presence in the old house. George however, is skeptical of such things. Even when his mentor and chair of the art history department Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham) praises him on his thesis touching on the spiritual paintings of Innis, based on Swedenborg’s work, he shrugs. “That’s actually the part of my thesis I struggled with the most,” George says.
He’s really in the wrong place, then. As Floyd notes, the Hudson Valley has a strong connection to Swedenborg’s teachings, on which a religious movement known as The New Church was founded back in 1817. He even gives George a book on the topic, with a cover illustration showing Innis’ “Valley of the Shadow of Death” painting from 1867, depicting a man in a boat travelling from the world of the living towards the spiritual realm, with a fiery upside down cross marking the transition. (Remember that painting, it’s important.) For Swedenborgians, everything in the natural world has a counterpart in the spiritual world, and the veil is not as hard to pierce as you’d think.
In Things Heard & Seen, this connection manifests through the spirit of Ella Vayle, the previous resident of the house who was violently murdered by her abusive husband. (Her surviving children even show up to work for Catherine and George, further cementing the connection.) Likewise, as the film progresses, we — and Catherine — start to realise that George is not quite the man he appears to be. He’s a fraud in almost every way, from his academic credentials down to the paintings he proudly displays in his office. While Catherine gleans peace and inspiration from the souls in her house, they bring out George’s worst impulses, which eventually leads him to commit two murders. When Floyd realises that George forged the letter of recommendation that secured his teaching position, the latter proposes a boat trip to clear the air. Only George returns. Meanwhile, Catherine, who throughout the film has progressively grown wary of the man she shares her life with, finally decides to leave him. He catches her on the way out, drugs her, and then brutally slays her with an axe, all while staging it to appear like a break-in gone wrong.
Still, George isn’t off the hook. The one person who could turn him into the police, Catherine’s friend Justine Sokolov (Rhea Seahorn), suddenly wakes up from a coma, having been run off the road by George himself earlier in the film. She knows that George faked his way into Saginaw by lying about his recommendation letter, she knows that he killed Floyd to cover his tracks, and now, she can provide evidence to put him away for Catherine’s murder.
With his parents in town to care for George and Frannie while he pretends to mourn Catherine’s death, the former is startled when his mother delivers a message left by Justine, whom he thought was surely close to death. The words (“Hi George, Remember me? I remember everything.”) send George into a tailspin. As he showers and shaves, he hears voices — his own? A spirit’s? — urging him to trust his impulses. These lead him to Connecticut, where his boat “Lost Horizon” (inherited from his dead cousin, from whom he also stole the art he passes off as his own) is moored. After paying off a disgruntled dock warden, he sets off, even as a storm starts to rumble above. Meanwhile, Sheriff Laughton (Michael O’Keefe) meets with Justine, who will presumably reveal what she knows. That won’t make much difference in the physical world at this point, but as one of the town’s Swedenborg devotees once told Catherine: ““Goodness always triumphs. Always. If not in this world, then in the next.”
As the sky starts to take on the orange glow of Innis’ Swedenborg-inspired painting, George loses control of the rudder. Something is holding him on a steady course towards death. As the camera pulls back, we see the full picture, framed: a sailboat, pointed towards a horizon bathed in light and flame, with an upside down, glowing cross appearing on the storm clouds. Like the man in Innis’ painting, George is transitioning into the spirit world (which, according to Swedenborgian beliefs, is neither heaven nor hell, but somewhere in between), and there he will stay, reckoning with what he has done for eternity.