Night Film

Night Film

3.7 165
by Marisha Pessl, Jake Weber

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NPR • Cosmopolitan • Kirkus Reviews • BookPage

A page-turning thriller for readers of Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Stieg Larsson, Night Film tells the haunting story of a journalist who becomes obsessed with the mysterious death

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NPR • Cosmopolitan • Kirkus Reviews • BookPage

A page-turning thriller for readers of Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Stieg Larsson, Night Film tells the haunting story of a journalist who becomes obsessed with the mysterious death of a troubled prodigy—the daughter of an iconic, reclusive filmmaker.
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.
Night Film, the gorgeously written, spellbinding new novel by the dazzlingly inventive Marisha Pessl, will hold you in suspense until you turn the final page.

Praise for Night Film
Night Film has been precision-engineered to be read at high velocity, and its energy would be the envy of any summer blockbuster. Your average writer of thrillers should lust for Pessl’s deft touch with character.”—Joe Hill, The New York Times Book Review
“Mysterious and even a little head-spinning, an amazing act of imagination.”—Dean Baquet, The New York Times Book Review
“Maniacally clever . . . Cordova is a monomaniacal genius who creeps into the darkest crevices of the human psyche. . . . As a study of a great mythmaker, Night Film is an absorbing act of myth-making itself. . . . Dastardly fun . . . The plot feels like an M. C. Escher nightmare about Edgar Allan Poe. . . . You’ll miss your subway stop, let dinner burn and start sleeping with the lights on.”The Washington Post
“Haunting . . . a suspenseful, sprawling page-turner.”USA Today
“Entrancing and delightful . . . [a] whipsmart humdinger of a thriller . . . It feels, above all things, new.”The Boston Globe
“Gripping . . . a masterful puzzle . . . Pessl builds up real suspense.”Entertainment Weekly
“A very deeply imagined book . . . sprints to an ending that’s equal parts nagging and haunting: What lingers, beyond all the page-turning, is a density of possible clues that leaves you leafing backward, scanning fictional blog comments and newspaper clippings, positive there’s some secret detail that will snap everything into focus.”New York
“Hypnotic . . . The real and the imaginary, life and art, are dizzyingly distorted not only in a Cordova night film . . . but in Pessl’s own Night Film as well.”Vanity Fair

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Editorial Reviews

Marisha Pessl's literary thriller — following by seven years her splashy debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics — captures something true about the viral, jumpy, surface-skittering way we live now. In an age of the infinitely reproducible, Pessl strives for innovation through remix rather than originality. Clichés and too-familiar tropes are prized playthings for her, and the more the merrier. Nothing is new in Night Film except for the abandon with which the author piles on references to movies and magazines and websites and other books; yet by mimicking the frantic hypertexture of contemporary life, the novel keeps reminding us just how much has changed.

Night Film's narrator is Scott McGrath, a New York City–based investigative reporter who was sued for defamation in 2006 while probing too closely into the activities of a reclusive, Oscar-winning director named Stanislas Cordova. In the wake of the lawsuit, McGrath's marriage went kerflooey, his high-flying career tanked, and he's been left to brood in his Perry Street apartment, alone with his memories and a forlorn movie poster of Alain Delon on his office wall.

Cut to October 2011, with breaking news that Cordova's beautiful twenty-four-year-old daughter, Ashley, has been found dead in the elevator shaft of an empty Chinatown warehouse. Was it suicide or murder? Was she troubled by inner demons, assaulted by someone she knew, or stalked by strangers? And how involved was her father, the sinister, shadowy Cordova — a grand master of horror flicks, notorious for blurring the line between appearance and reality? Intrigued, McGrath grabs the opportunity to restore his reputation by pursuing the case. Along the way, he picks up two helpful young sidekicks: a nineteen-year-old coat-check girl named Nora and Hopper, a small-time drug dealer with a heart of gold and a vague personal history that just might have included an association with Ashley Cordova.

A brash stylistic maneuver energizes the novel's opening pages, in which Pessl presents facts about Ashley's life and death through a series of website simulations, newspaper and magazine clippings, and other realistic-looking documents. In a faux article, Ashley (or, more accurately, an uncredited stand-in for her) stares challengingly in an accompanying photo, looking a bit like a sulkier young Amanda Peet, while a slideshow clicks through the particulars of Stanislas Cordova's life, including his three ex-wives and the 300- acre Adirondacks estate that has been his home since 1976 and has served as the location for most of his films.

It's not the content of these simulations that feels new here: some of it's cheesy, and all of it looks conventional. Instead, what's revelatory is the way it draws the reader into the story, precisely mimicking the way one would conduct an Internet search if Cordova actually existed, and thus making the reader complicit with McGrath in searching for clues to Ashley's death. Even more clever is the fact that some of the more fawning profiles of Ashley — a page from the Amherst College newsletter, for example, which slobbers over her teenage years as a piano prodigy — recall the amped-up media attention Pessl herself received when her first novel was published in 2006. Cheeky, playful, meta, twee: love it or hate it, this apprehension of our current moment — at least as it exists for the readers most likely to pick up this book — is as accurate as any contemporary novel could hope to be.

Pessl more or less abandons the visual aids about halfway through the narrative, but she sustains the atmosphere of ceaseless replication in other ways. Everything here, in fact, is a hologram, a spectral presence that purposefully suggests a thousand other things. (Not for nothing is Pessl's favorite figure of speech the simile, comparing like with like: the simile for her is as the footnote was for David Foster Wallace, a signature and a manifesto.) Cordova recalls a bit of Kubrick and Polanski here, a touch of David Cronenberg and Karl Atticus there. His creepy sprawling estate, called The Peak, brings to mind The Shining and Mark Z. Danielewski's alt-novel House of Leaves. There's a nefarious priest straight out of The Exorcist, sophisticated Manhattan witches like those in Rosemary's Baby, a high-end secret sex club like the one in Eyes Wide Shut, ash circles and weird piles of twigs borrowed from The Blair Witch Project, and on and on. Ominous totems are everywhere. Ashley's red coat, "that blood red stitch in the night," tries to conjure the same fear as the red plastic raincoat in Don't Look Now, while other portents include a compass, a locked box, a disfigured baby doll, a man's herringbone jacket, a child's bloody shirt.

Night Film, as these lists suggest, is all MacGuffins and no Jimmy Stewart. Scott McGrath isn't a credible enough tour guide through this world: he's slick and flat as a pop-up ad, and other key figures in the book sound too much like him. We follow him down a lot of random roads both urban and rural, some of them imaginatively atmospheric, but none of them particularly scary or thrilling. For a story about the titillations of horror, this has virtually none. It's too episodic to maintain any suspense, and there is, even in the secret sex club, zero sex.

But I don't believe that Pessl set out to satisfy the conventions of a traditional novel, and so to argue the effectiveness here of character or plot is to miss the point of the book. I think Pessl is setting up a mirror to show us our distracted, entertainment-drunk culture, where there's a precedent for every pop-culture reference, an information link for every personality, an Echo for every Narcissus. She's blithely unconcerned, as she was in her first novel, with any suggestion of depth. Speed and volume are her articles of faith, as they must be ours. "Life was a freight train barreling toward just one stop, our loved ones streaking past our windows in blurs of color and light," McGrath intones at the novel's end, with a timeless cinematic flourish. "There was no holding on to any of it, and no slowing it down."

Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Donna Rifkind

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Product Details

Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.24(w) x 5.90(h) x 2.23(d)

Read an Excerpt


New York City
2:32 AM

Everyone has a Cordova story, whether they like it or not.
Maybe your next-door neighbor found one of his movies in an old box in her attic and never entered a dark room alone again.  Or, your boyfriend bragged he’d discovered a contraband copy of At Night All Birds Are Black on the Internet and after watching, refused to speak of it, as if it were a horrific ordeal he’d barely survived. 
Whatever your opinion of Cordova, however obsessed with his work or indifferent—-he’s there to react against.  He’s a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world.  He’s underground, looming unseen in the corners of the dark.  He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day.
He’s a myth, a monster, and a mortal man.
And yet, I can’t help but believe when you need him the most, Cordova has a way of heading straight toward you, like a mysterious guest you notice across the room at a crowded party.  In the blink of an eye, he’s right beside you by the fruit punch, staring back at you when you turn and casually ask the time.
      My Cordova tale began for the second time on a rainy, mid-October night, when I was just another man running in circles, going nowhere as fast as I could.  I was jogging around Central Park’s Reservoir after two A.M—a risky habit I’d adopted during the past year when I was too strung out to sleep, hounded by an inertia I couldn’t explain, except for the vague understanding that the best part of my life was behind me, and that sense of possibility I’d once had so innately as a young man, was now gone.
      It was cold and I was soaked.  The gravel track was rutted with puddles, the black waters of the Reservoir cloaked in mist.  It clogged the reeds along the bank and erased the outskirts of the Park as if it were nothing but paper, the edges torn away.  All I could see of the grand buildings along Fifth Avenue were a few gold lights burning through the gloom, reflecting on the water’s edge like dull coins tossed in.  Every time I sprinted past one of the iron lampposts, my shadow surged past me, quickly grew faint, and then peeled off—as if it didn’t have the nerve to stay.
I was bypassing the south gatehouse, starting my sixth lap, when I glanced over my shoulder and saw someone was behind me. 
A woman was standing in front of a lamppost, her face in shadow, her red coat catching the light behind her, making a vivid red slice in the night.
A young woman out here alone?  Was she crazy?
I turned back, faintly irritated by the girl’s naiveté—or recklessness, whatever it was that brought her out here.  Women of Manhattan, magnificent as they were, they forgot sometimes they weren’t immortal.  They could throw themselves like confetti into a fun-filled Friday night, with no thought as to what crack they fell into by Saturday.
The track straightened north, rain needling my face, the branches hanging low, forming a crude tunnel overhead.  I veered past rows of benches and the curved bridge, mud splattering my shins.
The woman—-whoever she was—-appeared to have disappeared.
But then—far ahead, a flicker of red.  It vanished as soon as I saw it, then seconds later, I could make out a thin dark silhouette walking slowly in front of me along the iron railing.  She was wearing black boots, her dark hair hanging halfway down her back.  I picked up my pace, deciding to pass her exactly when she was beside a lamppost so I could take a closer look and make sure she was all right. 
As I neared, however, I had the marked feeling she wasn’t
It was the sound of her footsteps, too heavy for such a slight person, the way she walked so stiffly, as if waiting for me.  I suddenly had the feeling that as I passed she’d turn and I’d see her face was not young as I’d assumed, but old.  The ravaged face of an old woman would stare back at me with hollowed eyes, a mouth like an axe gash in a tree.
She was just a few feet ahead now.
She was going to reach out, seize my arm, and her grip would be strong as a man’s, ice cold—-
I ran past, but her head was lowered, hidden by her hair.  When I turned again, she’d already stepped beyond the light and was little more than a faceless form cut out of the dark, her shoulders outlined in red. 
I took off, taking a shortcut as the path twisted through the dense shrubbery, branches whipping my arms.  I’ll stop and say something when I pass her again-—tell her to go home
But I logged another lap and there was no sign of her.  I checked the hill leading down to the bridle paths. 
Within minutes, I was approaching the north gatehouse—-a stone building beyond the reach of the lamps, soaked in darkness.  I couldn’t make out much more than a flight of narrow stairs leading up to a rusted set of double doors, which were chained and locked, a sign posted beside them: KEEP OUT PROPERTY OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK. 
As I neared, I realized in alarm, glancing up, that she was there, standing on the landing, staring down at me.  Or was she looking through me
By the time her presence fully registered I’d already run blindly on.  Yet, what I’d glimpsed in that split-second drifted in front of my eyes as if someone had taken a flash picture: tangled hair, that blood red coat decayed brown in the dark, a face so entirely in shadow it seemed possible it wasn’t even there.
Clearly I should’ve held off on that fourth scotch. 
There was a time not too long ago when it took a little more to rattle me.  Scott McGrath, a journalist who’d go to hell just to get Lucifer on the record, some blogger had once written.  I’d taken it as a compliment.  Prison inmates who’d tattooed their faces with shoe polish and their own piss, armed teenagers from Vigário Geral strung out on pedra, Medellin heavies who vacationed yearly at Ricker’s—none of it made me flinch.  It was all just part of the scenery.
Now, a woman in the dark was unnerving me.
She had to be drunk.  Or she’d popped too many Xanax.  Or maybe this was some sick teenage dare—an Upper East Side mean girl had put her up to this.  Unless it was all a calculated setup and her street-rat boyfriend was somewhere here, waiting to jump me. 
If that were the idea they’d be disappointed.  I had no valuables on me except my keys, a switchblade, and my MetroCard, worth about eight bucks.
Alright, maybe I was going through a rough patch, dry spell—whatever the hell you wanted to call it.  Maybe I hadn’t defended myself since—well, technically the late nineties.  But you never forgot how to fight for your life.  And it was never too late to remember, unless you were dead.
The night felt unnaturally silent, still.  That mist—it had moved beyond the water into the trees, overtaken the track like a sickness, an exhaust off something in the air here, something malignant.
Another minute and I was approaching the north gatehouse.  I shot past it, expecting to see her on the landing. 
It was deserted.  There was no sign of her anywhere.
Yet, the longer I ran, the path unspooling like an underpass to some dark new dimension in front of me, the more I found the encounter unfinished, a song that had cut out on an expectant note, a film projector sputtering to a halt seconds before a pivotal chase scene, the screen going white.  I couldn’t shake the powerful feeling that she was very much here, hiding somewhere, watching me. 
I swore I caught a whiff of perfume embroidered into the damp smells of mud and rain.  I squinted into the shadows along the hill, expecting, at any moment, the bright red cut of her coat.  Maybe she’d be sitting on a bench or standing on the bridge.  Had she come here to harm herself?  What if she climbed up onto the railing, waiting, staring at me with a face drained of hope before stepping off, falling to the road far below like a bag of stones?
Maybe I’d had a fifth scotch without realizing.  Or this damned city had finally gotten to me.  I took off down the steps, heading down East Drive and out onto Fifth Avenue, rounding the corner onto East Eighty-sixth Street, the rain turning into a downpour.  I jogged three blocks, past the shuttered restaurants, bright lobbies with a couple of bored doormen staring out.
At the Lexington entrance to the subway, I heard the rumble of an approaching train.  So I sprinted down the next flight, swiping my MetroCard through the turnstiles.  A few people were waiting on the platform—-a couple of teenagers, an elderly woman with a Bloomingdale’s bag. 
      The train careened into the station, screeching to a halt and I stepped into an empty car.
      “This is a Brooklyn-bound four train.  The next stop is Fifty-ninth Street.”
      Shaking off the rain, I stared out at the deserted benches, an ad for a sci-fi action movie covered in graffiti.  Someone had blinded the sprinting man on the poster, scribbling out his eyes with black marker. 
      The doors pounded closed.  With a moan of brakes, the train began to pull away. 
      And then, suddenly, I was aware, coming slowly down the steps in the far corner—-shiny black boots and red, a red coat.  I realized, as she stepped lower and lower, soaked black hair like ink seeping over her shoulders, that it was she, the girl from the Reservoir, the ghost—whatever the hell she was.  But before I could comprehend this impossibility, before my mind could shout, She was coming for me, the train whipped into the tunnel, the windows went black, and I was left staring only at myself.

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Night Film 3.7 out of 5 based on 2 ratings. 165 reviews.
Jessica3751 More than 1 year ago
I was surprised to find an ARC of Night Film from Random House Reader's Circle in my mailbox this week. I began reading it yesterday and was instantly immersed in the complex story of Scott McGrath and his investigation into the suicide of Ashley Cordova. I read all 587 pages in just over 24-hours...I could not put it down. This book is AWESOME! Creepy, suspenseful, funny in parts, and tender too. It's definitely a book I will have to read again in the future. If you enjoy Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and other authors with amazing storytelling ability laced with dark undertones you will enjoy this book and I highly recommend it.
AuntMay More than 1 year ago
A riveting thriller. Very well written. Hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I got a chance to read an ARC and I completely enjoyed it, it was so interesting in the way it's written and the story. It has a lot of really great suspense and it will satisfy anyone's need for a creepy read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What happened to me with this book has only happened with me once before.....I went to Barnes and noble store to look at some summer reads just before college starts and I picked up this book and started reading the first few chapters just to get a feel for it... But once I started reading I ended up staying there for 3.5 hours (thanks to the Starbucks in our B&N) and had read almost more than half of the book. I had no idea about the author, no expectations before I had picked up the book and I was getting my mind blown. I ended up buying the book It is definitely well written (a bit long in certain stretches but that's me nitpicking), and I especially like books where the reader is hunting for clues in the text as he continues to read. This book definitely gives you a joyride. The author seems definitely well read as a lot of quotes within the book refer to a number of classics. But that's again one thing that I did not like about the book was that some characters were given an unnecessary air of sophistication. The book is also thought provoking and on a second read when the mystery is already known, you can concentrate on the other social issues and darkness of basic human character it touches upon.  I definitely enjoyed reading it twice, though I don't know how many people do that with a mystery book. Hope my ramblings help other readers make a decision.
LemonZest More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to love this book, but I just couldn't quite get there.  It is worth reading, but it wasn't as fabulous as people seem to think it is.  I found the story not entirely engaging or thrilling/chilling.  I also thought the photos, web pages, and new stories that were put into the story were kind of corny and a bit lazy on the author's part; hose clues could have just been described in a more traditional way and left more to the reader's imagination.  After making my way through the book, I then felt there was not enough of a payoff at the end.  Again, it is worth a read, but I wish I would have had lower expectations because I probably would have enjoyed it more.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the most enjoyable book i read all summer. It is riveting, in depth, thrilling, and leaves you wanting more with every page turn. I love the character development and the way the characters and clues all intertwined. I loved the way the author chose to educate readers about the storyline by showing websites and webpages , and so many aspects of the story, horror films, film making, family, and other surprise topics that were described in wonderful detail. The authors skill of blurring fantasy and reality were phenomenal. Even after over 620 pages i still wanted to read more about this riveting story. Couldn't put it down !
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was excellent until the last 50 pages. The reader is left without the resolution the main character is seeking the entire book. If you like stories to have resolution...this book is not for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thanks for the time and work on this book author. Unfortunately it will be for a very small demographic of people. The book is too disjointed, rambling, incoherent, long winded and ultimately unfullfilling. The characters, surroundings, relationships and settings I found fractured in most every scenario. If your thinking of spending the money on this book, know this. You never get even the slightest hint of resolution and your valuable time and money will be well spent elsewhere.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was like having your mom telling you to eat your vegetables or you couldn't leave the table ...I finished it just so I could move on to a better book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You might want to consider NOT using your reader for this book. Many news clippings, charts, etc. Very difficult to see on Nook
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Let's put it this way. I just read it about two weeks ago and can't remember being excited, remembering any charactor, and hardly remember the plot. Boring.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While it is a good read, I found the overuse of italics to be distracting. Italics are meant for emphasis, but when too many words are emphasized they lose their impact.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A long, overly tiresome read which needs some definite changes in the Nook. Police reports, news stories, etc. which are given a full page in the print edition are squeezed to a half page in the NOOK making them exceptionally hard to read. The main character is an investigative reporter and goes about his job in a credible manner and I can appreciate him. Nora is pretty well described and has some very good ideas and performs well. Hopper, another secondary person, drags and drags as does the action in the book. If this is supposed to be a horror story there is only one section where the main character is crawling around in tunnels and coffins that is remotely frightening. Other than a draggy action line and my constantly asking myself "Why am I reading this?" The book was very put downable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was awesome!! Highly recommended!! 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had no problem with format on my nook. What i loved most was the layering of the story elements - it felt crafted without being contrived. Would highly recommend to anyone searching for a book to explore
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book should not be offered in Nook format. The author uses actual press clippings to move the story along and they were unreadable to me. I was not able to enlarge the text so I finally gave up. It is still languishing on my Nook device!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I lost sleep because I did not want to put this one down.
aloha206 More than 1 year ago
This book verges on ridiculous.  I very much enjoyed the author's previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but Night Film was silly, boring and overall unsatisfying.  Pessl has some beautiful prose at times and then ruins the scene by inserting very trite dialog.  I would not have wasted my time with it except that I wanted to see how she tied up all of the many loose ends.  Pretty dissatisfying overall.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Had I read reviews I would not have bought this book. It wore me out reading on and on and on. In addition, after finally getting to the conclusion -- there was none or certainly not I would have liked to read. Sorry this book not on my best sellers list.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My favorite book of 2013 easily. Very original, amazing story. I can't recommend it enough!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am so happy this book exceeded my expectations! Just when I thought I had it all figured out, there was a giant twist and I Had To keep on reading. It kept me at the edge of my seat! But what I love about it most is that it is not just a thriller or murder mystery type of book...It really makes you think, and it challenges the way we feel and live our lives as ordinary human beings. The characters are filled with passion, and the story has so much depth and dimension it is difficult to categorize it as one thing only. Anybody that loves a good adventure will enjoy this, as well as people who have a true appreciation for art. Congratulations to the author. This book Is true, raw, unique art.