Courtney Glaude’s feature film debut, ‘The Reading (2023)’ is an artfully done thriller starring Academy Award winning actress Mo’Nique. The film— instead of solely relying on clichéd gory visuals— meticulously utilizes ominous scores, dramatic camera work and menacing silhouette blocking to incite a sense of impending dread in the audience.
The film has a strong start for the story to build upon. The first act introduces plot points and tools, appearing as the perfect stepping stones for the rest of the narrative to fall into easily. But then, when it decides to take a sharp dive into genre subversion, those same plot points click into different places and present an equally captivating but wildly different narrative.
The good old bait and switch trick seems to be a favorite of this movie. It constantly relies on the audience to misplace their trust in the wrong situation and then gleefully swipes the metaphorical rug from underneath their metaphorical feet. What starts off as a supernatural horror focused around the trauma of a woman ends up being the slasher thriller story of a psychopathic, demented murderer. Though an admired storytelling device, genre subversion can be hard to pull off and often leaves audiences lamenting about the loss of potential in the initial premise. Mix that with a thriller and an open ending— and well, by the time that the credits roll in, you’re left with a few questions. SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Reading Plot Synopsis
The story starts off with the unnerving home invasion of the Leeden family house, which results in the brutal murder of Emma Leeden’s husband, teenage daughter, and son. Emma Leeden, sole survivor of this attack, goes on to write a book detailing her traumatic experience to preserve the memory of her family. During the promotion for this book, Emma’s sister-in-law and PR agent, Ashley contacts a teenage supernatural medium, Sky, to fake a psychic reading for Emma. What she doesn’t know is that Sky is, in fact, an actual medium with the abilities to make contact with the dead. Once Sky arrives with her team to Emma’s heavily fortified house and makes contact with Emma’s dead husband and kids, the plot starts to take a sudden and immediate turn for the worse.
Emma, the assumed protagonist until now, is revealed to be an unreliable narrator. Sky finds out that there had never been a home invasion and that it was all a cover-up by Emma, who had actually killed her entire family in cold blood. What follows is a classic “cat and mouse” chase inside of an impenetrable and inescapable house. The factors previously mistaken as setups for a ghost story lay down the perfect groundwork for Emma to hunt down Sky and her team of friends.
The faulty service and no Wi-Fi, instead of being a supernatural interference, transform into a helping hand in the kids’ entrapment, while the steel reinforced doors and bulletproof windows turn Emma’s house from a safe home of a paranoid survivor to the basement of an unhinged killer. The remaining two acts are filled with classic chase scenes, jump scares, bloody deaths and impromptu monologues. Emma divulges into her past crimes and the motives behind them in true antagonist fashion, and discloses her real self, one that of a psychotic and greedy woman.
In the climax of the movie, Sky— the final girl of this slasher— saves her own life, kills Emma and manages to escape. As the credits roll in and audiences are left to pick at the cryptic end dialogue, the plot picks up once again for the last time. Now, Sky is shown to be appearing in the very same talk show as Emma from the very start of the movie, promoting her own book about her own traumatic experience. When the film finally ends, it leaves you with the question: Exactly how reliable was this second narrator?
The Reading Ending Explained: Who is the Actual Villain, Emma or Sky?
The entire movie balances on the concept of misdirection and twists, and so it only seems right that as it ends, it throws you in for one last loop. Emma and Sky both present similar stories to the talk show host, who acts as a stand in for the audience. A house full of dead bodies, one remaining survivor and no further evidence to support their tale other than their own word.
The thing to understand here, is that throughout the story, Emma Leeden appears as three separate characters in three separate instances. In the credits of the movie, you will notice actress Mo’Nique is listed as having played three individual characters: Emma Leeden, Ms. Leeden and Emma.
The first— Emma Leeden, is the character shown in the very start of the movie. A loving, doting mother and wife who appears as a sappy and clichéd caricature of what a happy, normal family woman looks like. This image of Emma is presented to the audience by Emma herself, as she recalls the plot of her book based on alleged real life events. It fixes Emma’s place in the narrative inside the ideal frame of a character that the audience is meant to sympathize with and root for. The second Emma— Ms. Leeden, is the fraught, grieving woman who has taken her grief and tried to turn it into something else. This is the woman who has been fundamentally changed by her trauma, who needs a stick to walk with, and has but a hoarse voice to talk with. This is a woman written to be respected and admired.
Lastly, we have the third iteration of this character— Emma. The crazed woman with a knife who only cares about money and status and is willing to sacrifice her family for it. Violently so. When the story tilts on its axis at the climax of the first act, so does the title of the protagonist. Emma no longer is in charge of the story, and in her stead the responsibility falls onto Sky. The slasher killer Emma that we see, is a character in Sky’s account of the story. And because now Sky gets to be the narrator of the tale, she can bend it to her whim however she wants.
So the question that actually remains in the end is not of either character’s villainy or wrongdoings, but rather their credibility. In the end, who do you believe? Ms. Leeden or Sky? It’s a matter of perspective.
Was Sky Really a Psychic Medium?
Once the credibility of a character is doubted, it is rather difficult to believe anything else surrounding them as well. If, as heavily implied by the ending of the movie, Sky had in fact lied about what had happened inside of the Leeden house what else did she lie about? All instances of Sky’s psychic abilities are showcased within the first 45 minutes of the movie, when the story is still one of supernatural horror. There’s very little actual textual evidence which supports Sky’s legibility as a Medium that isn’t simply her own claim.
Time and time again, the film uses empty, daunting silence in place of pseudo-corporeal ghosts to stir up fear. It encourages the viewers to fill in the blanks themselves, the whole structural integrity of the plot relies on our urge to make context based assumptions. There’s no backstory given to us about Sky’s psychic abilities, no insights— we’re meant to accept it at face value because by the time a plot is meant to develop on such details, ‘The Reading (2023)’, would have already left all pretenses at paranormal storytelling behind. It never shows and only tells.
With one single exception: Johnny’s mom. At the very start of the movie, barely ten minutes into the plot, Sky and her friends are shown to be doing a psychic reading for another college kid named Johnny. Later, Sky has a conversation with her boyfriend, Gregory about how during her contact with Johnny’s mom she had felt the woman’s presence to be angry and strong. The scene is meant to hint at a probable future catastrophe, however it also provides us with the one thing lacking in the entire film. Actual reliable text.
There is no reason for Sky to be lying to Gregory about her abilities and for her to go into any depth about it at all. If it is a scam she’s running, introducing feelings of fear and hesitance into play hardly seems like the best idea. In this scene Sky isn’t trying to sell a story to anyone because at this point Emma still holds the narrative power over the plot. Sky right now has no motive or even just the capacity either to subvert the storyline, which makes this one scene of the movie, perhaps the only reliable and legitimate one.
What is The Driving Force Behind Either Emma’s or Sky’s Deception
With such an open and conflicted ending, the difference in perspective changes the way you look at a story. If Sky’s word is to be believed, then the movie’s last hour shifts from a work of deceitful fiction to the actual truth. And if that is the case then you can’t help but be left wondering, why would a woman like Ms Leeden be driven to homicide not only of her husband but her kids as well? Similarly, if Sky is to be treated as the dishonest one, then what is the reason behind her dishonesty.
The answer to both those questions, as it would turn out, seamlessly blend into one another. The end result that both women receive, the compensation for, whichever one it is— their trauma or their crimes— is the same. Money and Fame. Both the characters at some point in the story are shown to be struggling financially. Emma is steadily on her way to poverty, and Sky already exists just barely outside of it. The ideas of financial instability and greed plague both the characters and while psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies are glaringly tied to Emma’s character, the motive still remains there for Sky. At the start of the movie Sky is shown to be struggling with money and wants to help her mother pay off her bills. Even though the psychic scam she’s running with her friends is emotionally and psychologically draining for her, she still accepts Ashley’s job offer because she can’t turn down such a large sum of money. Money and greed are already established to be the things that give her character agency and move her place in the plot forward.
The characters of Emma and Sky were always meant to parallel each other in some way or the other. This is a film that refuses to exist within the orbit of a reliable narrator, and in doing so creates two separate yet equally self-serving narratives by two different characters. Within the story, both these narratives have to co-exist without outshining or delegitimizing one another. The movie manages to do this with moderate success, and regardless offers the audience with a riveting, fun— and mildly disturbing— time.
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