Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House) is an uncanny psychological thriller that delves into the secretive world of underground filmmaker Stanislas Cordova to explore the relationship between the constructs of truth and fantasy.Pessl_Night-Film

Night Film follows discredited investigative journalist Scott McGrath as he attempts to discover why Ashely Cordova, the daughter of super genius, super reclusive, and super disturbing filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, has killed herself after mysteriously appearing to him. Aided by Nora and Hopper, two teenagers who also had contact with Ashley before her death, McGrath wades through an ever-twisting series of leads involving witchcraft, an escape from a mental asylum, Satanic rituals, matching tattoos, disappearing witnesses, a false priest, and rumours of child mistreatment. All clues seem to point back to the mysterious Cordova, who seems to be loosely based on Stanley Kubrick, and who haunts the novel through his absence, frequently slipping out of McGrath’s reach just as he nears the truth. Perhaps the most uncanny sequence in the novel when McGrath and crew infiltrate Cordova’s estate and seem to enter one of Cordova’s films. The consistently eerie scenarios (such as the disappearance of all interview subjects and evidence files overnight, or the mysterious black figurine that McGrath finds planted on all children connected with Ashley, including his own young daughter) and characters (the cryptic Cordova, the son with three missing fingers) keep the novel engaging and delightfully tense.

Example of Night Film's media
Example of Night Film’s media

One innovative aspect of Night Film is its media: mockup pages of online articles, websites, police reports, scraps of paper and photographs augment the text in a way that reminded me of Lemony Snicket’s Unauthorized Autobiography. Initially I was disappointed that the URLs on the webpage mockups didn’t lead anywhere when I typed them into my browser; perhaps, I thought, my transmedia expectations were too high after The Lizzie Bennet Diaries or Sherlock’s The Science of Deduction and John Watson blogs. However, I was happily surprised when I reached the end and discovered that there was a decoder app I could download to scan the bird symbols I’d noticed in some of the images (pleasingly, the app works on the ebook version too!). This revealed an extensive amount of extra content, more than I had been expecting: case reports from Ashley’s time at Briarwood, transcripts from court proceedings, recordings of Ashley’s music, even a syllabus for Beckman’s class on Cordova. Pessl’s YouTube channel also has “found footage” from Cordova’s films. I wish I had discovered this content before I finished the book, as it would have added even more depth to Scott McGrath’s investigation. As it is, all credit to Pessl and Random House for undertaking this transmedia project.

I had conflicted feelings about Pessl’s previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics: I really liked the first two-thirds, but hated the ending. So I approached Night Film with caution, afraid of getting burned again. But no fear! Night Film delivered a strong, strange story that kept me eagerly reading from start to finish.

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