Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali and Ethan Hawke star in this glossy, Shyamalan-level-10 apocalypto-paranoid conspiracy thriller, adapted from the 2020 bestseller by Rumaan Alam. It’s an example of a growing tendency in the movies: baggy, lengthy, episodic pictures which are starting to split the difference between feature film items and streaming TV. Amat Escalante’s Mexican thriller Lost in the Night is, I think, another example of this tendency: films that go on for a while and, like a shaggy-dog story, leave things open for the possibility of getting recommissioned for season two. (Ridley Scott’s Napoleon epic for Apple TV also straddles film and TV, with extra content for the small screen iteration – although, admittedly, he can hardly be accused of leaving things open at the end.)
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Roberts and Hawke play Amanda and Clay, well-off Brooklynites with two teen children; she’s a cynical ad exec, he’s a laidback humanities college professor. On a whim, they decide to take a luxurious weekend break in a luxury Airbnb mansion outside the city. But things get weird; there are storms outside, problems with the phone signal and the wifi and they witness something very disturbing at the beach. That evening, two strangers show up at the door – an elegant sophisticated man and his college age daughter, very well played by Mahershala Ali and Myha’la Herrold – with a very plausible explanation as to who they are and why Amanda and Clay should let them in. Things go terribly wrong.
As the catastrophe escalates, the movie’s mood music of imminent horror gets gradually and continuously louder, without ever quite reaching a climax of fear – or meaning. A herd of deer keeps clustering around the property like Hitchcock’s Birds and occasionally dispersing. Maybe someone has been living in the shed. A terrified woman screams in Spanish at Clay on the road. A lot of bad stuff is happening and going to happen. Very often writer-director Sam Esmail will split the dramatic focus between two or even three different crises within the ensemble and the effect is a little self-cancelling. And then …? Well the final moment gets a very big, bleak laugh – although we have been led towards it up a very long garden path.