An unbearably dull relationship is jolted by unfathomable domestic terrors in Significant Other, the latest horror offering from filmmakers Dan Berk and Robert Olsen (Villains, Body). The film begins relatively straightforward, with humdrum hetero couple Ruth (Maika Monroe) and Harry (Jake Lacy) embarking on what looks like an ill-fated hiking trip in the Pacific Northwest. As it progresses, however, Significant Other gradually splinters into various subgenres, creating an overarching amalgamation of horror nods and references that never spills over into outright pastiche. Berk and Olsen take a big swing by overtly hailing far-flung influences—Spielberg, Aster, Kaufman—without overstuffing their film with incessant references. But they don’t quite follow through on their initial ambition, and the movie feels frustratingly restrained.
It doesn’t take long for things to take a turn for the eerie: Ruth begins to hear disconcerting sounds in the dead of night, and Harry is disturbed by his girlfriend’s compulsion to investigate. On several occasions, Harry wakes in the wee hours of the morning only to find himself completely alone in an empty tent. He eventually locates Ruth on the periphery of their campsite, staring into the black abyss of the forest with overwhelming fear and curiosity. It’s unclear whether Ruth is under the influence of a sinister force, or if she’s uncovering something much more horrifying about her long-time boyfriend. What is apparent, however, is that this relationship will not emerge from the verdant forest unscathed—if the couple even manages to survive at all.
Significant Other spends a lot of time sowing the seed of doubt between the two partners (the majority of jump scares in the first act simply involve the couple accidentally sneaking up on each other), yet the film doesn’t say anything particularly interesting about the commitment or expectations of two people in a long-term relationship. Ruth shuts down emotionally when Harry randomly proposes to her, but there’s no deeper probing as to why so many women are increasingly rejecting this cultural norm. Sure, the scary things that happen to the couple can be read as a manifestations of these anxieties—fear of changing into something unrecognizable, of being devoured, of being betrayed—but there’s certainly a failed opportunity to comment upon the crumbling state of idyllic heterosexual unions. Instead, the filmmakers opt for the stale “mental health as horror” take, culminating in a finale that’s far more interested in the physical sensation of anxiety than the societal influences behind it.
Ruth and Harry effectively carry the entire film, and their isolated setting allows them to truly pull back from societal conventions (namely politeness) to explore the murkier (if, in this case, drably shallow) depths of an incredibly bland and irksome partnership. The filmmakers’ decision to play into their actors’ typecasting—Monroe, the doggedly stalked final girl; Lacy, the increasingly loathsome boyfriend—actually makes it difficult to connect with the characters. With Lacy’s case in particular, it’s impossible not to recall his identical roles in Girls and High Fidelity, with certain lines of dialogue inducing physical cringes through their sheer predictability. Even when Harry’s personality totally shifts during the trip’s descent into hell, all it manages to evoke is yet another one of Lacy’s roles: Shane, the conniving asshole from White Lotus. Ironically, the film’s script may have been too perfectly tailored for Lacy’s talents, leaving him ultimately unchallenged (and uninspired) in the role.
Monroe fares a bit better, if only because the film is largely loyal to her character’s point of view. Ruth suffers from a chronic anxiety disorder; the camera physically shakes and darts in and out of focus whenever she has an episode, imbuing the film with a personal perspective that’s rarely offered to Lacy’s character. While these anxiety POV shots quickly exhaust their novelty, Monroe is well-versed in the art of communicating unease through her facial expressions and line deliveries alone. Especially in the wake of her scream queen status due to her starring roles in It Follows, The Guest and Watcher, Monroe knows all too well how to convincingly convey the threat of being stalked and hunted by a terrifying entity. It’s disappointing, then, that Significant Other simply plays to the actress’s well-rehearsed strengths as opposed to subverting this restrictive role.
While Significant Other adheres dangerously close to banal character motivations and inappropriately subdued narrative shifts, it is still a pleasantly surprising departure from the constrained moodiness of the contemporary horror landscape. By embracing the radical possibilities of summoning supernatural threats, killer creatures and domestic disharmony all at once, the film offers, at the very least, an audacious exercise in breaking free from form. However, Berk and Olsen sabotage their own gutsy experiment with lead characters that suffocate under their stereotyping. Monroe and Lacy’s reliable but overfamiliar embodiment of these slightly re-worked characters deflates the film’s creatively zealous inner spirit.
Director: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen
Writer: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen
Stars: Maika Monroe, Jake Lacy, Matthew Yang King, Dana Green
Release Date: October 7, 2022 (Paramount+)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan