Night Film: A Hypnotic Modern Day Mystery
By Jéan-Claude Quintyne
The latest reel of drama inserted into the projector of Academy Award Winning film director Stanislas Cordova’s life begins when his daughter, the musical prodigy Ashley Cordova, commits suicide by jumping down an out-of-service elevator shaft. It is this incident that jolts the story’s protagonist, Scott McGrath, into action.
Set in 2011 New York, Night Film, by Marisha Pessl, follows McGrath, an award winning investigative journalist, as he begins rebuilding his life, recovering from a divorce and a million dollar lawsuit filed against him by the estate of Mr. Cordova, as he investigates the suicide of the director’s daughter.
“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love,” Marisha Pessl writes. “Will you curl up with your eyes closed and die? Or will you fight your way out of it and fly?” Such functions as one of the themes of this novel; McGrath embarks on a treacherous journey that shifts between clarity and absurdity, causing him to question his motives and his sanity, cloaked by ominous shadow of Stanislas Cordova.
Information about Mr. Cordova, the antagonist who has not made a public appearance since a 1977 interview with Rolling Stone, is accumulated throughout the novel as we read the evidence that McGrath gathers during the investigation. The information paints a haunting, disturbing, and mysterious image of the cult film director that blindly encourages us to turn the pages.
Throughout the novel Pessl incorporates articles from the New York Times, slideshows from TIME.com, select pages of McGrath’s files on Cordova, screenshots of the Blackboards, a website made by extremist fans of Mr. Cordova, called Cordovites, and many other interactive features to keep readers up to pace with and participate in the investigation. Readers know everything that McGrath knows and become just as paranoid, frustrated, and confused.
McGrath’s journey is filled with so many twists and turns that one often forgets what he’s trying to accomplish and it doesn’t let up, he never gets a break. This continues all the way to the end, where the illusion that things may have a logical ending becomes an investigation itself.
Just as Mr. Cordova is a haunting presence in the story, his deceased daughter is also. Ashley’s red coat, a flickering red color that McGrath is rattled by in the rain and scotch-drenched prologue, erves as a veil that readers aren’t aware they’re wearing. Her presence guides McGrath, but whether or not it is there to tell him to stop the investigation or continue it, can only be answered at the end.
A jarring sequence begins when McGrath enlists the help of a psychic, one of the people Ashley visits days before her death. He discovers that voodoo, a practice he knows nothing nor cares about, may have played a factor in Ashley’s suicide. And when McGrath’s young daughter gets wrapped up in the magic, he is thrown into a mental frenzy in which he questions his life-long sanity.
Pessl meticulously creates a very familiar New York, where readers see McGrath jogging through Central Park and chasing perpetrators down Fifth Avenue, and captures a world where one’s motives and skepticism are put to a mentally disturbing and exhausting test.