Riz Ahmed has made a well-deserved leap from character actor to leading man status in his recent work, beginning with the prestige HBO drama The Night Of and then his rapturously received performance in last year’s Sound of Metal. He’s currently garnering accolades for another music-based drama, Mogul Mowgli, and has yet another film in the TIFF ‘21 slate, Michael Pearce’s Encounter. You might say he’s having a moment, enlivening these various projects with fiercely committed portrayals of tightly-wound, emotionally-wounded men with furtive smiles and big, kind eyes that belie an anger roiling just below the surface. He’s a live wire, teetering on an impossibly fine line and threatening to plunge over at a moment’s notice. It’s a shame, then, that Encounter can’t surround him with a movie worthy of his performance, instead relying on belabored obfuscation to distract an audience rather than dig deeper into the ample drama already on display. There’s a good dramatic film buried in here somewhere, but writer/director Pearce doesn’t seem to trust it.
Beginning with a montage that shows a shooting star crashing into Earth, Encounter traces a chain reaction of animals ingesting some kind of microscopic bacteria, then in turn infecting each other as the food chain runs its course. Eventually, a mosquito lands on human skin and takes a bite, with the camera tracing this molecular invader’s progress from the mosquito through a human bloodstream. Who’s been bitten, and why, are questions that fuel the first half of the film, before being largely discarded as the narrative progresses.
Ahmed’s Malik Khan is introduced gearing up for some kind of mission. He’s got maps and blueprints and a loaded gun, and keeps spraying himself with an aerosol bug repellant. Soon enough, his mission is revealed: he’s kidnapping his children in the dead of night from his ex-wife and her new husband, determined to keep them safe from an extraterrestrial bug invasion. As Malik drives his two sons across state lines into Nevada, some of his backstory is gradually revealed; he’s a former Marine who did something like 10 tours of duty in the Middle East, and hasn’t seen his boys in over two years. Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) is older, on the cusp of puberty, and has vivid memories of his father. Bobby (Aditya Geddada) is younger, and while he’s happy to see his dad, he doesn’t have the same connection with him. Malik explains to them that alien bugs are everywhere, having already assimilated half the world’s population (including mom and stepfather), and that he’s taking them to a military base for their own safety. It’s a potent set-up for a sci-fi thriller, but Ahmed’s performance clearly indicates that something isn’t quite right with Malik even before we meet Hattie (Octavia Spencer), his parole officer. She alerts the police when Malik misses a check-in, and once they discover the missing children, the FBI gets involved too, led by Agent West (Rory Cochrane). It’s here that the film begins entertaining the idea that all of this is in Malik’s head, and the narrative branches out to include scenes of Spencer’s character investigating the kidnapping as well as the federal agents working the case. Frustratingly, the film ceases to be a subjective exploration of a possibly damaged psyche and instead pivots into a full-blown suspense thriller, a kind of race against the clock as the FBI becomes convinced that Malik is going to kill his children. Once the narrative switches gears, the film loses much of its appeal, despite the cast’s best efforts.
Still, there’s plenty to like here; Ahmed’s performance is matched by the remarkable young actors playing his sons, who are initially thrilled to be on an adventure but grow increasingly weary of their father’s mood swings and violent temper. Much is made of how parents pass along their own trauma and neurosis to their children — infecting them, so to speak — and the need for children to learn to stand up for themselves. But scenes between Malik and the boys are constantly interrupted by banal sequences of the police pursuit and Hattie tracking down Malik’s old war buddies. There’s much effort expended on adding unnecessary tension to an already fraught situation, like a tedious sequence involving some militiamen who begin tracking Malik that devolves into a superfluous action beat. The real power here is in simple scenes of a damaged man trying desperately to reconnect with the children that barely know him anymore, while coming to terms with his own propensity for state-sanctioned violence. That’s a potentially great movie, and it’s a shame Pearce didn’t make it. Ultimately, Encounter gets swallowed up in its own high-concept, too concerned with its bait-and-switch to service its own characters.
Published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.