Gorgeous production design and strong performances elevate the standard erotic thriller plot.
Some of the best thrillers have to do with the home. Night House, The Invisible Man, and series like Haunting of Bly Manor and American Horror Story tap into that vein of particular terror that comes with having your safety, your shelter violated. It quite literally hits you where you live.
That horror of exhaustion is much of the driving force behind HBO’s four-part series, The Girl Before. Directed by Lisa Brühlmann and based on the book by J.P. Delaney/Tony Strong, The Girl Before is a refreshingly modern take on the haunted house. In this case, the house in question is a minimalist mausoleum of a flat with some serious strings attached. The owner/architect Edward (David Oyelowo) has a lot of conditions for potential tenants. Unfortunately, the house’s immaculate surfaces and sparse glamour blind them to the laundry list of red flags piling up.
Girl Before splits the narrative into two timelines. Viewers follow Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the present-day and Emma (Jessica Plummer) three years earlier. Both women find something appealing about the house and its architect. Emma sees a fresh start after enduring a terrible ordeal, and she pursues it almost desperately, despite the protests of her partner Simon (Ben Hardy). Jane, recovering from a terrible loss, also seeks a new beginning. However, Jane isn’t after the same kind of safety that Emma seeks. She finds the house, and its rules, a curiosity, a harmless intrigue.
Hitchcock’s Vertigo casts a long shadow over Girl as Edward seems equally obsessed with his idea of perfection as Jimmy Stewart’s poorly-used sap Johnny-O. He seeks perfection not just in his created structure but also in the women that attract and intrigue him. Jane and Emma have a lot of similarities. Both work in marketing, have beautiful natural curls, and share a similar height and figure. But while Jane is reserved and cautious, Emma is a force of nature, chaotic and openly emotional. Her messy, complicated life seems to fascinate and repulse Edward in equal measure. For his part, Edward gives off serious Bluebeard vibes, with Jane and Emma both wondering just what might be behind the locked doors and secret panels in their bridegroom’s fancy castle.
Mbatha-Raw’s barely-contained grief, Plummer’s desperation, and Oyelowo’s rigid physicality put Girl a cut above its contemporaries.
Things get even more complicated when Jane learns that the previous tenant died in the house under mysterious circumstances. Despite being drawn to Edward, she can’t resist the past’s lure. Did this man she desires have a hand in the deaths of not one but two women? And what of the house itself? As Emma and Jane’s isolation from the outside world increases, the house itself seems determined to keep them to itself.
Smart homes have increasingly become portrayed as tools of domestic abuse–something The Girl Before and films like 2020’s The Invisible Man use to their advantage. Girl’s generically malevolent AI (called Housekeeper) not only steals its tenants’ personal data, but it also begins subtly taunting the home’s occupants, denying them access to necessities like water until they’ve completed another lengthy Myers-Briggs-type questionnaire. In the end, the series doesn’t make much of Housekeeper–or its intentions. Still, it serves as an effective tool in the slow erosion of Emma’s mental health and preventing Jane from further investigating the circumstances of her predecessor’s death.
Plot-wise, Girl is standard murder-mystery/erotic thriller fare. However, the sumptuous production design and performances from the three leads surpass other entries in the “Girl” genre. While there are plenty of incredulous moments where you just have to groan, “oh, come on,” it’s the emotional performances that make Girl a standout. Mbatha-Raw’s barely-contained grief, Plummer’s desperation, and Oyelowo’s rigid physicality put Girl a cut above its contemporaries.
The 4 part series is as sleek and stylish. While its big reveal may be a tad obvious by the end, the journey to that point is totally enjoyable. Yes, it is a slow burn (at times a bit too slow), but the building tension culminates in a satisfying conclusion, assuming you’re like me, and the most satisfying thing you can see is a man going to therapy. Those looking for something genuinely bonkers on the level of Behind Her Eyes might be disappointed, but viewers who want a stylish Hitchcockian mystery with some emotional heft need look no further.
The Girl Before opens its doors on HBO Max February 10th.