The beginning of Marisha Pessl’s new thriller Night Film is brilliant. Can’t-put-it-down brilliant. Take-a-quick-break-to-add-her-first-book-to-my-Amazon-cart brilliant. It was a great beginning, but Night Film quickly turns into an exercise in managing expectations. The esoteric horror epic turns into a more traditional detective potboiler. Then a teenage sidekick is added. Then… well, you get the picture. Night Film is a perfectly fine book – enjoyable, even, once you settle into its rhythms – but it has sporadic ambitions at being something more, something smarter and darker and infinitely more interesting.
Scott McGrath is our protagonist, but I’m not sure if I’d call him the main character. That distinction goes to a man who doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the book, a man whose appearance is brief, unexpected, and powerful: Stanislas Cordova. Cordova, a cross between David Lynch and H.P. Lovecraft, was once an immensely popular filmmaker, making intelligent, dramatic horror films during a time when intelligent, dramatic horror films were popular, but his growing fame and inability to deliver commercial projects lost him his deal – but it didn’t stop him from making movies. Low budget underground films shot on his palatial estates and released in secret in subway tunnels and in broken down old houses. His movies get more disturbing, can only be seen in secret. A sort of cult forms around them. Rumors spring up that his films can drive you mad, that his family practices black magic, that Cordova is a killer, rumors that are only magnified when his mercurial daughter commits suicide. What really happened to Ashley Cordova? Did her father and his lifestyle drive her to this?
Unfortunately, as I said above, we spend the book with investigative journalist Scott McGrath, and Scott McGrath is just not that interesting a guy. Even his two spunky young sidekicks (… ugh) are more interesting than he is. Pessl passed on a powerful horror premise (reclusive cult filmmaker whose movies drive people mad) and a powerful dramatic premise (reclusive cult filmmaker whose life choices drove his only daughter to suicide) to play a smoke-and-mirrors game more interested in upending expectations than telling a story. Even that may have worked, if the thriller were taut and twisty enough, but the book is, structurally speaking, fairly bland as we follow Scott from one interesting character to another, only to find that everyone in this setting speaks in nothing but exposition.
Night Film is somewhat redeemed by a creepy climax with a hilarious twist, but it’s too late to regain the magic of the book’s opening pages. Writer Marisha Pessl is clearly an intelligent, inventive person, and I think she has a truly great literary thriller in her. This isn’t it. Night Film is interesting. Regularly, it’s downright excellent. But its individual pieces never cohere into something larger, and none of them are in and of themselves strong enough to shoulder the entire book. Night Film is fascinating, but flawed.
Cal is a young, underemployed librarian and a frequent contributor to Read/RANT comic book reviews. He’s currently living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, with his family and using the post-grad-school grace period to read and write as much as he can.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.