by Hope Madden
Just two features in, filmmaker Michael Pearce is proving himself a master craftsman. His sly ability to shift tone is matched by storytelling instincts that leave you holding your breath against seemingly inevitable heartbreak.
Pearce’s 2017 film Beast (see it if you haven’t!) benefitted from Jessie Buckley’s raw, morally complicated performance. For his latest, Encounter, he can thank Riz Ahmed.
Fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in Sound of Metal (see it if you haven’t!), Ahmed delivers another searing, searching turn, this time as Malik. A marine with 10 tours under his belt, Malik returns to the home his wife makes with another man. He arrives not to cause familial conflict, but to save his sons (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, both as cute as they are talented) from a problem much bigger than mere marital discord.
Ahmed’s chemistry with the young actors brings a touching vulnerability to every scene, and as the boys’ road trip turns ever darker and wearier, Chauhan proves a formidable acting partner.
Rare missteps stand out specifically because of their rarity. When a line delivery rings false, over-the-top or melodramatic it screams its presence because this cast and this script deftly convey so much so honestly.
Octavia Spencer offers support in a role that feels out of step with the jarring authenticity the main cast brings to an otherwise wild, almost sci-fi storyline. Likewise, the police force Spencer’s parole officer Hattie rides along with — soft-spoken Shep (Rory Cochrane) and self-satisfied Lance (Shane McRae) — toe the line between character and cliché.
Otherwise, though, Pearce, Ahmed and gang uncover tensions and complications, picking at your worries for these sweet boys and their beautifully damaged father. Tone shifts gradually but decidedly, every moment building a queasying energy until the inevitable finale (a beautifully choreographed sequence that calls to mind the insect infestation imagery of Act 1 while articulating the nerve-frazzling tension).
The filmmaker and his game lead challenge expectations both in theme and in genre, and while their gamble doesn’t entirely pay off, it’s often riveting stuff.