Apple TV+ delivers a bracing and odd psychological thriller from Shyamalan and Tony Basgallop.
We learn from a young age that strangers are scary. That fear never really leaves us, which is probably why there are so many horror movies about home invasions, from the violent (see: You’re Next) to the slow-burn disaster (see: Single White Female). In Servant — a bracing and odd psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan and Tony Basgallop — the unknown comes in the form of a peculiar young nanny, but the home she’s invading is not without its own awful secrets.
It’s dark and rainy the night Leanne Grayson (Game of Thrones’ Nell Tiger Free) arrives, suitcase in hand, at the Philadelphia townhouse owned by Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell). The Turners have hired Leanne as a nanny for their baby son Jericho, but — and this is not revealing anything that Apple hasn’t already made public — Jericho is dead, so instead Leanne will be caring for a lifelike doll. When their baby passed away at just 13 weeks old, Dorothy suffered a “full psychotic break,” and the doll, Sean explains, is the only thing that’s helped her recover. “Transitory object therapy, or so our unlicensed quack likes to call it,” he tells Leanne in private. “How long we have to keep up this charade, I don’t know.”
But Leanne, who kneels to pray every night by her bed and adorns Jericho’s nursery with a homemade wooden cross, is unfazed. While Dorothy is off at work as a TV news correspondent, Leanne changes the doll’s diapers and takes it for walks in a stroller. Meanwhile, Sean, a consulting chef who creates recipes in his well-appointed home kitchen, watches with a mixture of confusion and concern. By the end of the 30-minute premiere, a perfectly-executed twist (twist!) turns Sean’s worry to paralyzing shock — and suddenly he is scrambling to maintain a hold on his reality in the face of Dorothy’s chilling fantasy.
Ambrose is just the right amount of disconcerting as Dorothy, who frantically fills silences with the false brightness of a TV anchor even as the pain of her trauma fights for air. Free is eerily impassive as Leanne, who is either a shy farm girl overwhelmed by big-city life or a cunning (and supernaturally supercharged?) manipulator. Rupert Grint is wonderfully, hilariously brusque as Dorothy’s brother Julian, a hard-drinking lout who thinks Leanne is just after the Turners’ money. (His rough refusal of Toby’s homemade lobster ice cream — “Get the f— outta here!” he barks, hurling the spoon across the counter — is sublime.) Perhaps this will be the performance that finally unshackles the actor from Ron Weasley for good.
Most of the action in Servant takes place in the Turner’s sumptuous townhouse, a suitably claustrophobic choice that compounds the tension in every interaction. Faces are shot in extreme close-up, or sometimes not at all: Shyamalan, who directs the pilot, frames one anxious conversation between Sean and Dorothy from the neck down, training his lens on their hands as they fidget at each other from across the table. Winky signals of dread are everywhere, from the book Dorothy reads in the tub (Mothering: A Journey Into the Unknown) to the dark water stain blooming on the ceiling in Leanne’s bathroom. Even Sean’s job comes with its own horrors: The camera zooms in on a freshly-murdered lobster being dismembered with a series of violent tugs, or an eel nailed to a cutting board, as Sean slowly peels the skin from its still-wriggling body.
It all contributes to a mood of luxurious dread. Shyamalan has said he needs six seasons to tell Servant’s full story, which feels… inflated. After watching all 10 episodes, it’s hard to imagine the mystery sustaining more than two seasons or so. But it’s far too early to quibble. Right now, Servant is delivering the kind of giddy thrills you want from horror: Things are going from bad to worse for the Turner family, and I can’t help but enjoy it. Grade: B+
Servant premieres Thursday, Nov. 28 on Apple TV+