Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Title: Night Film
Author: Marisha Pessl
Publisher: Random House

Rating: 3.5 stars.
Goodreads Summary: On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.

For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself.

Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world.

The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.


Whether you like this book or not depends on the kind of reader you are.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a mystery, a fast-plotted semi-noir with glimmerings of the paranormal. The plot follows disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his tagalong motley crew—there’s Nora the coat-check girl who wants to be a star, Hooper the drug-dealer, and a supporting cast that comprises of everything from a piano tuner to witches to Jamaicans to washed-out heroines to adorable kids to Armenian drag-queens (this last only in passing, unfortunately.) 

In Night Film, a freakish cult-like following worships the legendary (and very fictional) film-maker Stanislas Cordova, who has made some of the scariest, darkest, most secretively filmed movies Hollywood has ever seen. Think maybe a cross between Stephen King and Vito Corleone.

Cordova has a motto of sorts: Sovereign, Perfect, Deadly, and his fans hold red band screenings for his movies in catacombs, meet up in darkened Montauk beach-houses, collect Cordova movie paraphernalia from black markets, and really get up to a sort of cult-like idolatry. Cordova himself has not been in the public eye for years, living instead in the comfort of his sprawling Adirondacks mansion, with prodigious daughter Ashley and a line of wives/women who comes and goes on Cordova’s whim/turns of fate. By staying away from the public eye, Cordova attains a sort of bogeyman image, and this force of Cordova’s charisma is what alone drives the book and Pessl’s other, much forgettable characters.

The novel begins with the death or apparent suicide of Cordova’s daughter, the beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova, in a seedy neighbourhood in New York. The narrator, Scott McGrath, immediately delves into the case all guns blazing—aiming to clear his name of the disgrace he wrought on himself by implying that Cordova was a danger to society on national TV. With his marriage fallen apart, and his career in the dumps, this is McGrath’s only chance. But he quickly realizes that there are forces that want to prevent him from finding out the truth, and the complicated twists and turns of the case take him places he never thought he’d go, and into cultures and lifestyles he never thought he’d be a part of. Magic, whether real or not, is a very important part of Night Film.

Where Night Film succeeds is with Pessl’s engaging writing. She brings twists and turns and new concepts to the plot that enriches it, and McGrath is a reasonably authentic voice for a 40-something cynical man. New York appears to be as much a character as anyone else. Ashley’s mystery touches upon Native beliefs, voodoo, and even takes detours into wicca. It’s fun and fast-paced and doesn’t have a boring moment. It’s a mystery in a grand sense, and while I didn’t like the resolution all that much, I still liked this book well enough that it kept me turning the pages well into the night.

The book uses extra media—images, paper clippings, photographs, and using a scanner app on your phone, you can access even more media online. While these kind of gimmicks are growing more popular in books, it occasionally detracts from the actual story. Some of it is necessary, most not at all, and Night Film maintains a precarious balance between the two. I think it’s rather time for Pessl to leave behind these gimmicks and visual tricks and focus on the story she’s telling.

Another problem I had with Night Film is that it set up to provide some sort of great, cataclysmic meeting between McGrath and Cordova, but instead I first got a false alarm, and then half-involved descriptions of a meeting that was mostly just talking and boredom. I wanted some crazy, crazy twist.

Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was praised by readers and critics alike for its self-parodying, quirky teenager voice, the storytelling, and the general throwing around of references that range from obscure botanical journals to quotes from every writer under the English Literature curriculum and then some. I enjoyed Special Topics to an extent, and thought it had its flaws. Night Film is not anything like it, which I sort of see as Pessl’s growth and her ability to produce works that belong to a wider range.  Pessl’s characters are still all unfortunately quirky and similar-sounding, and while quirk is good, too much of it just comes across as amateurish. There are some metaphors that seem overblown, and likewise with her tendency to populate her pages with extremely colourful characters—sometimes it’s quite overdone, and can be quite tiring.

Bottomline: Night Film is entertainment, plain and simple. It’s not a deep foray into the mind of a crazy man, as I half-way expected it to be. Go into the book expecting a character-driven novel and you come out disappointed. Go into it expecting a cozy murder mystery...and you just might like it enough to finish it, or even actually love it. I did.

I have to applaud the E-Book makers—with all the extra media, it’s always a gamble whether images and text will mesh well in iBooks, and Night Film does the job well where several other books, including Special Topics and the honestly silly Miss Peregrine’s whatever-it-is failed to work.

3.5 stars.  


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