Sunday, September 12, 2021

[TIFF Review] ‘Encounter’ Surprises With Genre-Bending Alien Invasion Paranoid Thriller

Director Michael Pearce demonstrated a keen ability to play in multiple genre sandboxes simultaneously with his feature debut, Beast, which kept audiences guessing right up until its conclusion. His awaited follow-up, Encounter, continues his streak for wildly imaginative and engaging character-driven work through a genre-bending filter. Only this time, it’s run through the setup of a paranoid alien invasion-style thriller. It unnerves and impresses in equal measure, building to a surprising and suspenseful sophomore effort that hinges on the magnetic performances by its cast.

Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a highly trained and decorated marine with a skill for assessing risk and danger. His observant nature means that he’s the only one that seems to notice the strange, alien bugs that are slowly invading and taking over the bodies of everyone around him. It’s happening so quickly that Malik is unable to warn anyone, nor can he trust anyone. Malik does what any father would do in his position; he takes his young sons from his estranged wife’s home after she’s been bitten and embarks on a road trip to base for safety.

Pearce co-wrote the script with The Ritual screenwriter Joe Barton, creating a larger scaled paranoid road trip movie between father and two young sons. Malik attempts to be the fun dad, allowing his sons to partake in all the sugar and sweets they want or teaching them to drive on the desert roads of California and Nevada. But he keeps a vigilant eye on their surroundings for signs of bugs and infection. The trio encounters mistrustful and often trigger-happy people along the way, creating intense scenarios that shatter all illusions of family bliss.

Encounter mostly adheres to a familiar, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style paranoid thriller as it settles into this new family dynamic between father and sons. Right up until they’ve found a comfortable groove, then Pearce bends the genre shackles and shifts into high gear. Though the filmmaker is a little less successful here with ambiguity, the shift’s impact doesn’t hit quite as hard as intended. Even still, the world is a dangerous place, translating into a surprisingly violent third act. It culminates in a grand spectacle of a showdown that continues to defy genre convention.

It’s a gorgeously shot feature that instantly reels you in with its paranoid and mysterious premise. But what makes it work are the performances. Ahmed more than capably carries the film as the caring dad that teeters close to the breaking point more than once thanks to the constant danger. His two precocious and charming sons, played by Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, carry the film’s heart. Octavia Spencer also brings a gravitas to a much smaller but vital supporting role.

Pearce’s sophomore effort continues to mark him as a filmmaker to watch. Encounter doesn’t exactly forge new ground, but it’s the execution that impresses. It’s a gorgeous and heartfelt family drama, but it’s also a suspenseful and sometimes shocking paranoid thriller. Pearce blends the two opposing sides of this story seamlessly and offers rich but thinly veiled subtext, too. It’s an atmospheric road trip thriller that does retread some familiar ground, but the performances elevate it into something more remarkable.


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