Despite some compelling performances, Michael Pearce’s sci-fi thriller fails to live up to the promise of his debut, Beast. The post Encounter appeared first on Little White Lies.
A film I find myself thinking about a lot is Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter from 2011, in which Michael Shannon plays a father plagued by apocalyptic visions which lead him to construct a bunker beneath his property in Ohio. The question hangs over the film as to whether his premonitions are real or a symptom of mental illness; it’s a beautiful, haunting end-of-days drama that regularly springs to mind whenever I have a nightmare, or see a particularly overcast sky.
Michael Pearce’s second feature Encounter recalls Nichols’ work, but only in that it’s an inferior film which deals with similar subject matter. Riz Ahmed plays ex-marine Malick Kahn, who appears to be on some sort of covert mission concerning extraterrestrial parasites that are invading the world. He travels to his ex-wife Piya (Janina Gavankar) and her partner Dylan (Misha Collins) to rescue his young sons, Bobby (Aditya Geddada) and Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan). The trio then set off on a road trip to a base Malick believes should provide safety.
But not everything is as it seems. Violent run-ins with other people on their journey lead Jay to question his father’s story, and it soon becomes apparent that the threat may be closer to home than any of them wants to admit. Encounter has an interesting premise, but the film rehashes harmful tropes about the potential danger people with mental illnesses pose to others.
Time and again we see schizophrenia used as a plot device in films, usually painting people with the condition as unstable and dangerous to those around them. Encounter sadly typifies this stereotype, as the local law enforcement becomes convinced that Malick is a “family annihilator”. The film becomes so concerned with action scenes that it fails to challenge this preconception, and the sci-fi plot is dropped entirely once Malick’s psychosis is revealed, leading to frustrating a lack of ambiguity.
While Ahmed gives a typically strong performance, the real stars are Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada. They have a charming screen presence and wonderful rapport with Ahmed, and really are the film’s saving grace among a plot that is at best ill-advised, at worst offensive to people living with a mental illness. It’s a shame considering that Pearce’s debut Beast felt like a more nuanced approach to mental instability and avoided presenting the most vulnerable members of society as a threat to their loved ones.
There is already a stigma around PTSD and mental illness in soldiers returning from war zones; Encounter makes no attempt to challenge this, instead leaning into the notion that trauma often leads to violence. It’s a deeply unpleasant and reactionary film that even compelling central performances can’t save.
Pearce’s 2017 debut, Beast, was remarkable. Excited for this. 4
A cruel and strangely reactionary film. 2
A bitter disappointment. Here’s hoping some of that Beast mojo returns for the next one. 2
Riz Ahmed, Janina Gavankar, Octavia Spencer