Riz Ahmed is on a hot streak, earning an Oscar nomination for “Sound of Metal” and raves for his work in this month’s “Mogul Mowgli.” To say that Michael Pearce’s “Encounter” derails that run isn’t too much of an exaggeration, however Ahmed is easily the best thing about this deeply frustrating story of mental illness and children in peril. In fact, there are times when Ahmed feels like he’s in an entirely different film than the rest of the cast or even the one that Pearce sometimes feels like he’s trying to make. To say he elevates a mediocre script would be a massive understatement, and his work alone almost makes this worth seeing, but only to imagine the better movie that could have contained it.
Ahmed plays Malik Khan, a decorated marine with clear mental illness. His condition doesn’t seem that dissimilar to the protagonist of William Friedkin’s excellent “Bug” in that he’s convinced little, evil parasites are everywhere—in the walls, in the air, in the eyes of his enemy. Clearly unhinged, Khan goes to the home of his estranged wife (Janina Gavankar) and kidnaps his two children (Aditya Geddada & Lucian-River Chauhan), taking them on the road in an attempt to save them from a nonexistent threat. His journey leads him across a dusty landscape, and the tension comes from being entirely uncertain of where he’s going or what he’s going to do when he gets there.
Around halfway through, Pearce completely derails this tension by introducing Malik’s parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer), who works with the authorities to save Malik’s sons from their father. A G-man played by Rory Cochrane is convinced that Malik is what’s called a “family annihilator,” which is the term for someone who kills their children and themselves. After all, he didn’t pack any clothes or supplies. Hattie is convinced that Malik honestly thinks he’s trying to protect his kids and wouldn’t hurt them. This half of the film is stubbornly generic, playing off child-in-peril clichés and hackneyed dialogue. It’s like Ahmed is doing a character study on mental illness and PTSD while Spencer is doing an original Netflix thriller that gets no advance press and manipulates the audience by presenting children in peril. Only one of these is worth seeing.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic would certainly never wallow in the simple characters or storytelling of a film like “Encounter.” The director of “Evolution” and this year’s “Earwig” makes films that are designed to challenge the viewer with their unusual characters and dream logic storytelling. For this film, she introduced it as a “gentle nightmare,” and I’d argue it’s a little too gentle. An intriguing set-up gives way to tedium over the course of this too-long film with too few things to hold onto in terms of character or narrative. It’s like Jean-Pierre Jeunet without the whimsy, a reminder that surrealism is better when it’s fun, not when it feels like it’s trying to slowly drag you into the center of the Earth.
In an unidentified place and time, a man named Albert (Paul Hilton) cares for a 10-year-old girl with ice for teeth. Yes, ice for teeth. Several times a day, he replaces her dentures which consist of teeth made of ice formed by her own saliva. Someone calls wanting to know about her well-being. One day, he’s told to leave his daily routine and a journey begins that will incorporate characters played by Romola Garai and Alex Lawther, and I could tell you very little about what it all means.
Well, sort of. There are clearly themes of control and toxic masculinity in this slowly drifting dreamscape, but none of it has any life. It meanders when it needs to feel threatening or vibrant. It drifts when it needs to hum. I admired the ambition of it, and yet never once cared about a single that happened in it. It has all the pulse of a long nap.
A far more traditional story unfolds in Fabrice du Welz’s divisive “Inexorable,” a film with a recognizable structure that holds it back from distinguishing it from a crowded festival. There are elements here that work, including some taut direction by du Welz and engaging performances, but it’s hard to shake the sense that it doesn’t add up to anything at all.
Marcel Bellmer (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a world-famous novelist whose most popular book is titled Inexorable. Of course, the fact that the word means “impossible to stop” should give you some idea that Marcel is in for a world of pain. Although it comes in the form of an intriguing young woman named Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi) who travels to the country manor that Marcel shares with his wife (Mélanie Doutey) and child, working her way into their life, befriending their young daughter. As Gloria reveals her deep fandom for Marcel’s work, one should ask if he’s ever heard of a book called Misery.
Of course, there’s a hidden connection between Marcel and Gloria that fuels her fandom, and I’ll admit to being engaged by the unfolding tension of the final half-hour of this slow burn, but to also really not caring what happened to a soul in the film. And the filmmaking doesn’t overcome that detached, apathetic thriller approach that sometimes feels cruel. The idea that intellectuals who seem to have it all can have barely-hidden skeletons in their closet that can surface with a vengeance isn’t new, of course, and it can be entertaining when it’s done well. “Inexorable” just isn’t memorable enough to justify the sense that you’ve read this book before.