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There are a handful of actors working today whose mere presence feels compelling enough to hold a movie, and Riz Ahmed takes Encounter (which opened the 48th annual Telluride Film Festival today) a long way. But he can't single-handedly carry a film that never quite figures out what it wants to be — stark sci-fi paranoia? Psychological family drama? Desert road-trip apocalypse?

Writer-director Michael Pearce, who made 2017's great, underseen Beast, begins it all with eerie promise: bright comets streaking across the sky, whirring insects burrowing into the bodies of unsuspecting human hosts. Ahmed's Malik Kahn, a former Marine with a Bronze Star and a stare so hard it feels like an x-ray, has been studying these strange phenomena, and he thinks he knows what they are: non-terrestrial parasites who invade and then take control. Caution and bug spray can keep them at bay, but that's a temporary fix; he needs to get his two little boys Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) to safety. So he takes them in the night from their mother (Janina Gavankar), who can't help them anyway — she's already been infected.

Encounter
Riz Ahmed in 'Encounter'
| Credit: Amazon Studios

His sons are just happy to see the dad they've only known through letters for the last two years and thrilled to be told they can eat candy and shoot guns and stay up as late as they want to. But an ugly encounter with a state trooper sows doubts; by the end of the first day, it's beginning to feel less like an adventure than a jailbreak. In fact, Malik has been to prison, and it's not long before his kindhearted parole officer (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) and a lot of less sympathetic lawmen are in pursuit. Are they villains or the sanest people on screen?

There's a thrumming, raw-boned intensity to Ahmed's Malik and an appealing unforced naturalism in the boys, who register as smart, intuitive kids without any of that strangely performative child-actor shine. But as they ricochet through increasingly desperate encounters with bystanders (some of them benign, some decidedly not) and the laws of nature, the story begins to lose its ballast, forfeiting a beguiling premise for something both more believable and somehow much less interesting. Pearce's first instincts — to turn and face the strange — may have been his best ones. Where he ends up instead feels, in more ways than one, like no man's land. Grade: B–

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