Right off the bat I want to establish something important: While Encounter is a film that is best seen without any prior knowledge of its plot, this is not to say that there is a twist or anything of that nature. Yes, the marketing purposefully puts forth a different movie than is accurate, but this subterfuge is almost immediately apparent, and to describe it, in my estimation, would not be considered a spoiler. Buuuuuuuut I’m sure plenty of readers will disagree, and I respect that. At the same time, it’s my job to write about it. Therefore, here is your warning: I am going to speak about this film frankly (and cautiously), and even though I don’t think your experience will be ruined by my words, I’m still issuing a spoiler alert.
We good? Okay.
Encounter tells the story of Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed), a former soldier who has returned home to protect his kids from a top secret threat. An extraterrestrial parasite has arrived on Earth, and Malik has been away from his family for two years researching and fighting the threat to no avail. The parasitic infection has now infected nearly half of all humans, and since Malik is not making any headway stopping it, he figures he can at least protect his children. He shows up to their home in the middle of the night, loads his two young sons into his vehicle, and hits the open road. Here’s your spoiler: It is immediately clear that Malik is unwell, and that his mission may be connected to his mental state. As such, many people are on his tail. His immediate superior (Octavia Spencer) leads the charge in support of a law enforcement team lead by a no-nonsense detective (Rory Cochrane). This gives us two adjacent movies, both individually exciting and in wonderful complement to one another. The first is the story of Malik, his family, and his mental state. The second is an intense, longform chase movie. As more information comes to light about Malik and the potential alien threat, the tension ratchets up to a near unbearable degree. By the time the third act gets rolling, I was dripping with sweat. Good times.
Even with the early “reveal” that Malik is a sick man, Encounter is a regularly surprising affair. Every few minutes it redefines itself, either in genre or character, with regularly occurring revelations that simultaneously serve to increase tension and add depth to the characters. Said characters are remarkably well-realized, and they do a lot of work to keep this increasingly bizarre film afloat.
Malik, played with devastating humanness by Ahmed, is not the type of guy that any reasonable person could call good, but his motivations are understandable at every turn. We are rooting for Malik to succeed, while also rooting for him to receive the help he needs, and for his children to be removed from danger. The characterization of Malik on the page is so much more thorough than a proposed genre film would have, and Ahmed sells every bit of it. By now we’ve seen him play characters that range from meek and naive (Nightcrawler), to positively evil (Venom). We’ve seen him undergo tremendous longform arcs (The Night Of), and we’ve seen him make comedy out of extremely dark material (Four Lions). Here, he gets to use all of these tools in a single role, and never once does his shifting mental state feel contrived. At both his best moments and his worst, the love he has for his children is genuine, if dangerously misguided.
And what children they are. Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada give two of the best performances of the year, and two of the best child performances ever. Beyond good. They feel like their father’s sons. They feel like actual brothers. Every choice these pint-size acting powerhouses make is purely organic. It takes a savvy child actor to not come across as “a little adult” and both succeed at keeping the vulnerabilities of childhood intact as they regularly steal the movie. Even if you hate Encounter, the central trio of performances are more than worth your time and money.
But if you’re into this sort of thing, you are going to love it. Encounter takes the shell of a high-pace thriller and populates it with some seriously moving performances. The way the plot is presented at large will surely be off-putting for some, but I defy anyone not to get wrapped up in the drama.
Directed by Michael Pearce
Written by Joe Barton, Michael Pierce
Starring Riz Ahmed, Janina Gavankar, Rory Cochrane, Octavia Spencer
Rated R, 108 minutes