Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a contemporary novel that focuses on its narrator’s quest to unravel the truth about a filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, and his recently suicided daughter, Ashley Cordorva. Marisha Pessl creates a truly masterful twenty-first century narrative that examines the nature of evil, the occult, truth, and familial relationships in a very organic and character-driven way.
The narrator is Scott McGrath, a journalist living in disgrace after his initial attempt at writing about the reclusive director Stanislas Cordova. Scott receives an anonymous tip from a possible former employee of Cordova that the director is engaged in a vague form of violence involving children. Cordova’s films are true cult icons in the novel. His films are largely unavailable and banned and only available on the dark net and at underground screenings in places like the Paris catacombs.
The novel mainly focuses on McGrath’s desire to find Cordova himself and also to find out what happened to Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, whose suicide opens the novel. McGrath is accompanied by a sort of homeless young man named Hopper and a young woman, Nora, who recently moved to New York City after growing up in her grandmother’s nursing home, Terra Hormosa.
A main concern of Night Film is the nature of evil: whether someone can actually be possessed by the devil, and the validity of magick and occult ritual, or if these are just symbols created by humans to try and make better sense of the world they live in. This examination is held hand-in-hand with art, particularly horror films. The question of why would someone make such intense, disturbing films if they truly are benevolent runs throughout the novel, and these threads move like snakes.
There are scenes rooted in mystery where you are certain something supernatural is happening and then suddenly the floor caves in and the reader finds themselves confronted with an entirely different interpretation of the events the characters are involved in. And of course, after you are sure what’s going on, everything shifts again. Which is essentially the main conceit of this novel. To paraphrase a line used throughout the book, just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, another trap door opens underneath you.
Marisha Pessl really has created something memorable. She writes complete back stories and plot synopses for all of Cordova’s films. She occasionally incorporates real life actors like Dennis Hopper, but mostly invents actors and characters and other such people working in and around Cordova’s films. Tension between art and real life is another central theme. Stanislas Cordova is seen as this incredible, larger-than-life person. But as Scott, Nora, and Hopper start digging into his real life and the life of his daughter, Cordova starts to appear as an incredibly conservative and traditional father figure. Ashley Cordova grows up as a musical prodigy, playing at an elite level by the time she is a teenager. Early in the novel it’s stressed that she wants to separate herself from her family’s legacy and live her own life. But she herself is haunted; haunted enough to commit suicide despite her musical talent and having all the resources she could ever need to live life as an exceptional artist.
McGrath’s investigations take him to a private mental hospital, an off the grid fetish club, out of the way antique dens, occult bookstores, and other such tasty places. McGrath is obsessed with finding out the truth about Ashley and her father. Whether Stanislas truly is evil and what his genius really means. This novel is a very organic look at off-the-grid, left-hand life in the early twenty-first century. It is also a love letter to cinema culture and a subculture of people who live by any means necessary and at the same time a look at the demands and price of artistic genius. Night Film is Marisha Pessl’s second book and is a gift to lovers of horror cinema and literary fiction.