In a genre such as horror, the idea of a person’s deteriorating mental health can have chilling consequences where the boundaries of reality and confusion conjure up serious boogeyman vibes. Most recently explored in films like The Night House (2021) and The Vigil (2020), viewers aren’t privy to where truth ends and make believe begins, which can create some dizzying archs of fiction.
The same can be said for Michael Pearce’s new film Encounter which situates the precarious head space of its lead character Malik (Riz Ahmed) somewhere between the hazy road movie of a Wim Wenders joint with the psychological horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (either the Siegel or Ferrara version, both are amazing). Just how much we can rely on his single-minded mission to save his two young boys from an alien invasion that injects itself into humans through bug and mosquito bites is debatable. But Pearce rings every ounce of tension out of the subject, and if the film is never quite as good as Riz Ahmed’s performance, it does strike an interesting correlation to the elevating madness in the world today.
Opening with a montage not unlike the sickening finale of Contagion (2011) that shows just how the virus spread in the first place (much after its too late to do anything about it), Encounter reveals an asteroid exploding over Earth and unleashing millions of micro organisms that find their way inside our insect population to do further harm up the food chain.
Cut to ex-soldier Malik (Ahmed) – a man harboring the usual array of serial killer-like string board analysis of creepy drawings and newspaper clippings- as he packs up and steals his kids away from his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) and her husband.
For the first half, Encounter plays it straight…. as if this will be an apocalyptic drama of survival across the desert Southwest while getting to mentor and be a real father to his sons for the first time in ever. The fanciful invasion aspect is given all the more credence when an overzealous highway patrol cop tries to enforce his will over a minor traffic infraction. Whether its aliens controlling his toxic need for authority of just plain old toxic masculinity is as debatable as Malik’s interpretation of the events going on around him however.
Slowly, as Malik and his two sons go further west, Encounters shifts perspective a bit as more details about Malik’s possible state of mind emerge, first from his parole officer (Octavia Spencer) and secondly as his grip on reality begins to border on the homicidal. Also in pursuit is the FBI, led by a wonderfully subdued Rory Cochran.
Where Encounter starts is vastly different from where it ends. In another terrific performance, Riz Ahmed wholly inhabits Malik as a confused and vulnerable soul in a world completely unequipped to help him. And it’s not hard to sympathize with him in a nation of mass shootings, communal delirium, and groups of people waiting for JFK Jr. to come back from the grave. Malik’s belief that aliens have infested most of the human race and can only be seen by a flashlight to the eyeball seems like the least crazy thing out there.
Allegorical leanings aside, Encounter doesn’t break any new ground as a psychological thriller, but Ahmed’s performance and the film’s willingness to at least make connections between its flawed father and the unraveling world around him make for a good effort.
Encounter opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday December 3rd at the following locations: Angelika Plano, Cinemark Legacy 24 in Plano, Cinemark Northeast Mall 18 in Hurst and Grand Berry Theatre in Fort Worth. The film begins streaming on Amazon Prime Friday December 10th.