Taking a break from playing musicians with health issues, in Encounter actor Riz Ahmed plays Malik Khan, a decorated Marine who embarks on a road trip with his two young sons (Aditya Geddada as the younger Bobby, and Lucian-River Chauhan as Jay) to protect them from a mysterious threat that he believes is alien in nature. I’ve seen Encounter described as a science fiction thriller, which it certainly is not. It is established early on that Malik is mentally unstable, and any fears he may have about aliens taking over the bodies of people they come across is pure manufactured paranoia that makes him a danger to himself and most certainly to the boys. And before long, a manhunt is underway that involves the FBI (led by an agent played by Rory Cochrane) and Malik’s parole officer, Hattie (Octavia Spencer).
As the film opens, Malik breaks into the home of his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) and her new significant other, who have been taking care of the kids since Malik was put into military prison for beating up a superior officer. It’s another result of his mental state, in which he believes aliens are infesting the bodies of earthlings—something he can “see” by shining a flashlight in people’s eyes, searching for small worms that seem to crawl underneath the skin. (We sometimes see what Malik sees, and it’s enough to make your skin crawl, even without aliens inside you.) Along their escape route, Malik attempts to teach his children survival skills and how to spot alien behavior, so even the kids start to suspect everyone they come into contact with. Unfortunately, this leads to Malik committing more acts of violence as his mind continues to slip away from him.
Directed by Michael Pearce (2017’s Beast) and co-written by Pearce and Joe Barton, Encounter’s tension level slowly mounts as the authorities close in on Malik, and the fear is that he will somehow hurt the kids rather than turn them back over to their mother, whom he naturally assumes is an alien. Throughout the course of the film, it’s clear that Malik was once a fantastic father; the mere fact that the boys are so eager to have him return to their lives is proof of this. But the older boy, Jay, begins to suspect that what he’s teaching them about aliens is nonsense, and we begin to fear what will happen when he finally summons the courage to confront their father. Hattie has been working with Malik for a couple of years and seems to have a good sense of what makes him tick, and when he evades FBI detection, the agency reluctantly turns to her for assistance rather than professional profilers. Spencer is actually wonderfully subtle here and conveys a genuine combination of empathy and intelligence during her work that hopefully will help stop the FBI from simply taking Malik out the first chance they get.
Ahmed’s performance is note perfect, but I fault Encounter’s screenplay for not giving us a sense of what he was like before his mind begin to fail him, so we’d have some idea of what has been lost and the tragedy of the situation. Ahmed’s performance makes a valiant effort to fill in some of these gaps in character building, but a more fully realized screenplay would have been far more useful. Still, the kids’ performances are terrific, and we never lose sight that this story is really about their relationship with their father as well as their future safety and well being. Either way, the events of the movie are going to mess them up when they get older; we just hope they live long enough to seek the help they need in dealing with their father’s actions. It’s a tough watch sometimes to see kids in danger like this for so long, but I did ultimately appreciate what does work about Encounter.
The film is now playing theatrically at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and will be available for streaming December 10 on Amazon Prime Video.
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