Here Before Review: This UK Thriller Will Gaslight You

Andrea Riseborough is magnetic in Here Before, a gem about a woman who’s convinced that she’s seen the reincarnation of her own deceased daughter.
A third of Americans believe in reincarnation. What convinces them? Is it the story of James Leininger, the four-year-old who woke up screaming about airplane crashes nearly every night, who knew an extremely detailed amount of knowledge about plane mechanics and World War II, and who swore he'd flown off of an aircraft carrier named the USS Natoma (an actual warship from WW2)? Is it the stories of toddlers who play piano almost perfectly without lessons, have incredible golf swings, or speak in unusual dialects or even foreign languages without hearing them?
Maybe it's something more personal, as in the haunting new mystery thriller Here Before, in which a woman begins to believe that her deceased daughter has come back as the new neighbor's kid. Stacey Gregg's first feature-length film isn't made for 'believers' of reincarnation, though; this isn't a bit on The Dr. Oz Show. It's also not strictly for skeptics, either. Instead, it takes a wholly realistic and patient look at how someone might come to really believe in this, not just from a theological or conceptual point of view, but with an intensely personal and deep conviction.
This is in large part thanks to Andrea Riseborough's performance as the mother, Laura, who lost her daughter in a car accident several years prior and has been grieving and honestly recovering ever since. The film meets her at a seemingly good place in life– she is gardening (perhaps symbolically unearthing her trauma and digging around in it), she goes out with her husband for nice dinners and drinks, she plays around with her son and takes him to school, and she appears to be in a positive place, all things considered. Riseborough has a certain poise to her, a gentle sophistication she has used to great effect in The Battle of the Sexes, where she memorably played the romantic interest of Emma Stone (with whom she also worked on Birdman).
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Riseborough has often been a character actor in that way, helping elevate the performances of stars like Tom Cruise, Michael Keaton, Steve Buscemi, and many others. Whenever she takes center stage, though, she dominates the screen, even opposite people like Clive Owen (Shadow Dancer) or in ensemble anthology shows ("Crocodile," the Nordic noir episode of Black Mirror). Her work in the brilliant body-horror film Possessor was honestly some of the best acting in horror cinema, exemplifying why she was wanted as the villain in The Crow remake. In Here Before, she is "at the top of her game," to quote Brent Hankins of The Lamplight Review, expertly navigating the winding curvature of the many emotional twists Laura experiences.
Laura loves her husband Brendan and son Tadgh, and obviously loved and was devastated by the loss of her daughter Josie. Life has a tendency of going on regardless of otherwise (and cyclical) world-shattering events, and Riseborough does a great job of showing how Laura can simultaneously carry her grief and trauma while also plodding ahead and trying to make the best of things. When new neighbors move in, she doesn't look at their daughter Megan as anyone out of the ordinary; she doesn't make any immediate correlation between her and Laura's own daughter. The film is intent on not belittling its protagonist and succumbing to the many tropes of films that depict obsession or insensitively show a character (usually a woman) 'going crazy.' Gregg's direction and Riseborough's performance ensure that Laura is not a caricature, but rather a real person who slowly develops a curiosity that could lead to dangerous places.
Laura grows into a somewhat maternal relationship with Megan, giving her rides home when the girl's mother fails to pick her up from school, and offering to cook dinner for her. However, Megan says and does strange little things that are similar to Josie, which seem like more than coincidences– she comments on the cemetery near where Josie is buried and the road on which she died, she asks for the same ketchup smiley-face on her sandwich that Josie liked, and she draws pictures of herself as a part of Laura's family, calling Tadgh her brother. She even knows intricate details about the playground Josie used to visit, though she's never been there herself.
Tension develops regarding if Megan actually knows these things from some kind of supernatural place or a past life, or is simply a child lying or playing games. This causes a mounting amount of emotional distress for Laura, who begins to question the nature of her reality and the possibility of reincarnation, which all places stress on her familial relationships. If Megan isn't the reincarnated girl, then she's a devious and malicious little child (à la Oscar-winner The White Ribbon), unless something entirely else is going on.
The film points to clues that envelop the proceedings in a sense of mystery, creating suspicion and paranoia regarding nearly every character, which almost emulates how Laura herself feels. Here Before is constructed with uncertainty at its core, artfully developing scenes and editing in flashes of memory which gaslight the audience the same way that Laura is. The dark and melancholic score from Adam Janota Bzowski compliments this perfectly, as does a bizarre musical montage with a surprising moment of horror. Snippets of dialogue and lingering shots enhance the feeling that something is going on just out of reach, and whether it's supernatural, happenstance or something more malicious is teased and manipulated throughout the course of the film.
What begins as a terse domestic drama builds to become a slow-burn psychological mystery and, in the riveting conclusion, an incredibly tense thriller, all while staying within the bounds of being a small, often claustrophobic picture. The cinematography from Chloe Thomson often pushes the audience into small spaces with several people, like cars, crowded classrooms, and dining rooms, heightening the sense of being stuck in one's own head and forced to interact with people and ideas one would rather shy away from. Laura doesn't want to become obsessed, and she doesn't want to believe in reincarnation at first, but a series of unexplainable instances keep sending her on those journeys and forcing her to confront the grief and trauma that Laura thought she'd put behind her.
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This kind of trauma, and the strong women who deal with it, is a reflection of Gregg's childhood, growing up as she did during the tail end of The Troubles. "Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 80s and the 90s, this whole landscape is a landscape of post-traumatic stress," the director told the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. "Looking around for me, as a child, I was surrounded by strong women and how they often navigated that trauma and grief and the sort of stoicism that I witnessed and the hard or tough love that I witnessed was formulated in me as a little girl who wasn’t that dissimilar in a lot of ways to Megan."
In a sense, then, Laura's process of grieving and the interruption it suffers in the form of Megan is reflective of larger cultural and political traumas. The idea of suffering an immense loss or difficulty, grieving and moving on, and then having to face that trauma all over again as it resurfaces (or reincarnates) sounds very familiar in the COVID-era, when new variants emerge every time humanity thinks they've put the pandemic past them and can begin to grieve. Riseborough told Deadline, "We are all so isolated in so many ways, and then in many other ways, we’re more connected than ever because of this strange time we’re in,” and that sentiment captures the similarity between the traumas of Here Before and the process of suffering and grief everyone has been going through.
Unfortunately, the allegorical substance (and even the narrative threads) surrounding reincarnation is severely underused in the film, and it seems like a largely missed opportunity. Perhaps Gregg didn't want her picture to use it as a gimmick or be associated with as "that reincarnated dead kid" movie, which is totally understandable, but there is a great amount of consideration and detail regarding the belief (and how it could be used as a metaphor) which is largely absent from the film. What could have been a fascinating exploration of the belief and its parallels to conflict and the human need for hope is instead used as a simple and brief plot device to highlight the protagonist's trauma and desire to see her daughter again. It seems that just when the content is being introduced, the film pulls the rug out from under the audience and switches gears in a rush to its otherwise excellent dénouement. In an age of overly produced movies with excessive length, where movies about Batman and other superhero movies like Zack Snyder's Justice League have four-hour cuts, Here Before actually seems way too short at an hour and twenty minutes.
If anything should have been cut, however, it's the very final floundering minute of the film, which seems to deaden the preceding intensity of the prior twenty minutes. The movie has an incredible closing sequence that can be literally edge-of-your-seat dramatic but then switches to a (mercifully) momentary and peaceful epilogue of sorts which erases all the impactful aspects of its drama. Hopefully, this is a flashback or some other artistic device, because if this is meant to be a literal part of the linear narrative, then it's a completely counterproductive choice.
Those are somewhat small complaints about an otherwise very good film. Andre Riseborough has the ability to reincarnate herself into any character, but here she plays one of her most sympathetic, three-dimensional, and complicated roles yet. It's a powerful performance that strengthens an already artful, tense little gem that, along with its star, will hopefully get the attention it deserves.
Alexander Skarsgard is already attached to star in this thriller about a family taking refuge in a bomb shelter after a bizarre outbreak.
Editor and writer for Movieweb.com. Lover of film, philosophy, and theology. Amateur human. Contact him at [email protected]

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