Is there actually always a way out? Taken literally, the answer to that question is an obvious yes, for there are multiple. Try traveling by car, or boat, or plane; you’ll get where you need to be, or out of where you don’t want to be just fine.
But that’s not really the question, is it? When someone is looking for a way out, they are seeking something greater, or at least they have some sort of idea that a vaster land awaits at the end of their voyage. Cinematically, an exodus can appear anywhere. It can be what starts a story, what causes a story to turn, or, evidently, where it ends. No matter which of those three doors the film elects to open, some kind of ending is actually what defines the journey. Take it from Tony Stark. At the end of Avengers: Endgame, his hologram tells his family and friends, “that’s the hero gig: part of the journey is the end.” He’s a hologram because he’s dead. For this hero, that’d be door number three, I suppose. Sorry for the spoiler; you’ve had two years.
Now, Iron Man wasn’t looking for a way out. It just happened to meet him head-on as he and Earth’s mightiest heroes attempted to look for a way out of the suffering brought upon their world by Thanos’s snap of a finger. Frankly, the only similarities between Mati Diop’s Atlantics, Remi Weekes’s His House, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that they are all the products of filmmaking. But the characters in both Diop’s and Weekes’ films are desperately looking for a way out, and their departures chart the course of their lives.
In Atlantics, the way out is the turning point; in His House, it’s where we begin. In a way, the most beguiling film of 2019 makes for a perfect double feature with the most terrifying movie experience of 2020. Both tales of migration from Africa to Europe in search of a better life — and both ghost stories — the films differ the most in how they elect to haunt.
Atlantics isn’t a horror movie, but a romance (there just happen to be ghosts involved). It centers on Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old girl living in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, who has been arranged to marry a rich man named Omar – he offers her gifts from time to time as a vehicle of his affection, like a rose gold iPhone he hands her early on in the film. Apple product aside, she’s in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a young construction worker with less money and, therefore, less of a dictated future. When he sets sail for Europe to seek other work and the trip turns fatal, he returns home in a spiritual form. It’s a haunting concept, but it’s visually stunning and never terrifying. Souleimon, like an invisible cloak, remains with Ada, even if his attempted migration led to his disappearance from her life.
It’s romantic and tender. His House is a gauntlet of terror, like being doused by ice water while stuck in a pitch-black world. Weekes’s Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu) departed Sudan for London with hopes of, as is per usual, a better life, only to be met by imminent dread in capricious forms. They’re disrespected by (mostly white) case workers and neighbors, provided housing that would be considered ghastly to the homeless population, and haunted by forces appearing externally, yet also existing within. If they aim to escape, they could be deported for violating bail whilst seeking an appeal for asylum. If they stay and battle the creatures occupying their peeling walls, they’ll inch closer not to some sort of exodus, but demise.
It’s becoming a common trope, the idea of migration being met by horror, not because it’s easy but because it’s a notion steeped in truth. On Atlantics for MUBI Notebook, Kelli Weston wrote that “perhaps no figure is more suited to convey this two-ness, this in-betweenness, than the zombie—dead but alive—born of this rupture, the original emblem of the African diaspora.” The zombie is a plodding, drooling figure, like purgatory personified. When the migrating men in Atlantics disappear, their loved ones, for some time, don’t have knowledge of their whereabouts. They exist in a zombified state – dead but alive – to those back home and to themselves, but nevertheless, they clutch onto a sense of agency. And, fittingly, that agency is used for their spirits to come home to comfort and for comfort. They never made it to their preferred destination, and they never will.
His House strikes a creepier chord due, yes, to a plethora jump scares, but more so for how effective it is in depicting how refugees must feel when it comes to attempting to identify with a home they didn’t help to build, and one they’re hardly welcome in. There’s one particular scene close to the end of the film where a room in Rial and Bol’s house becomes populated by the Sudanese natives they left behind. But yet again, it’s within that these visions exist, and outwardly where they appear. As Odie Henderson wrote for Roger Ebert upon the film’s release, the film leaves us “with the sobering notion that trauma will always occupy a room in the houses our psyches build. To not acknowledge its presence only makes it bang harder on the walls.”
Perhaps what unites these films even more than the ethereal influences at their cores is the endless internal battle between having, not having, and wanting to have something else. Neither film is condemning the idea that resettlement can save nor ruin, and neither film is arguing that it’s exclusively through migration that people can find peace. What they do conjunctly maintain is a persistence that everyone has their home and will somehow find it. Is it in another place? Is it in one another? What exactly is a home? Like the question, “Is there always a way out?”, neither film proclaims that it knows the answer. Part of the journey is the end, and contrary to what classic fables have tried to teach us, not all conclusions can bring us resolutions.