Readers who cannot handle ambiguity would do well to avoid Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, for it is the type of novel that avoids definitive answers. Or does it? The brilliance of the novel lies in the fact that the story is open to interpretation. One can take what Ms. Pessl presents at face value or question everything that happens as nothing more than misdirection with the truth hidden beneath all of the false leads. Either nothing is as it seems, or it is exactly as it appears to be. It is up to the reader to make the story as unclear or as concrete as one wants it to be. Personally, this is part of the story’s cleverness.
Another excellent feature of the story is the presence of the night, which becomes its own character. Much of the action occurs at night, increasing the tension and creating a gothic atmosphere that befits Cordova’s films and his myth. Since the story is as much psychologically as well as physically intense, the night and all of its connotations fit well into this moody and tense thriller. In addition, Scott’s fascination with the darkness behind Cordova’s films easily lends itself to the comparison between the things hidden in the night versus the things hidden within our id. Truth, danger, horror, and redemption are all things buried deep in the recesses of the dark, and not everything wants to see the light of day. The night holds its secrets close, creating a powerful, haunting setting that does as much for the story as anything else created by Ms. Pessl.
Compared to the sinister night, the rest of the cast seems almost clownish by comparison. Scott is simultaneously endearing and annoying. He is incredibly adept at reading the clues incorrectly and is constantly at least one or two steps behind almost every other character. However, his love for his daughter creates some of the most poignant scenes in the novel. While his lack of insight can be explained by his absence in the field of investigative journalism, his partnerships with the eccentric Nora and Hopper are less easily explained. Their appearance marks a turning point in his investigation, but the reasons for his easy acceptance of their involvement in his formerly private investigations remain cloudy. Similarly, the ease whereby they are able to find answers where none previously existed indicates a greater knowledge of Cordova than even Ms. Pessl reveals. Even without the added convenience of their involvement, they both seem too extreme to truly fit into the situation. Scott may be goofy and unreliable, but Nora and Hopper remain enigmas throughout the novel as their presence raises its own set of unanswered questions and potential red herrings through which readers must weed in order to derive the truth.
The entire novel feels like one big mental game, and it is easy to get caught up into Cordova’s mystique. The brilliant use of imagery, blog pages, newspaper stories, and other spotlights in media serve to blur the line between fiction and reality. Long before the thought occurs to Scott, a reader begins to wonder if s/he is not reading the next Cordova manuscript. The comparisons between what occurs in his films and what Scott experiences in his one-man manhunt are great, only compounding the feeling that one has entered into an entirely different story than the one started at the beginning. The fact that the actual truth remains as nebulous as Cordova’s presence is a masterstroke of writing on par with Hitchcock and just as frustrating.
There is much about Night Film that will annoy and distract a reader and could even turn off a reader from the entire story. The characters seem comedic compared to their target, and the number of unanswered questions will test the patience of even the most loyal of readers. However, the fact that the number of unanswered questions is really open to interpretation is sheer genius. It is a story that pays homage to those moody film noirs and suspense thrillers of early Hollywood – the ones that pushed the envelope and made viewers rethink everything. The psychology behind Cordova’s films and legend is just as fascinating as Scott’s mindset, while the entire novel forces readers to reevaluate their own perceptions of pretty much everything. It is a novel that attracts and repels in equal measure but will continue to haunt readers no matter on what one ultimately believes about the story.