A mind-bending narrative requires deft execution, something that proves far beyond Gone in the Night’s capabilities. Writer-director Eli Horowitz’s first feature film, presented at SXSW earlier this year as “The Cow,” stars a wide-eyed Winona Ryder as a woman who is taken back when her boyfriend goes AWOL from a weekend getaway.
What at first glance looks like your run-of-the-mill missing person suspense story has a more complicated agenda — but it’s so haphazardly advanced and clumsily articulated that the film seems to fumble for itself for a coherent structure or mood. Vertical Entertainment Opens Indie Feature July 15; The star’s renewed visibility via the new Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ should give more impetus to later home format releases.
Kath (Ryder) and Max (John Gallagher Jr.) are introduced as they drive north from San Francisco to Redwood Country, where he appears to have rented a vacation cabin on a short-term basis. Upon arrival, however, they find it already occupied by a younger couple, the openly hostile Al (Owen Teague) and the haughty Greta (Brianne Tju). Despite this unwelcomeness, it is decided that the newcomers can stay the night rather than head straight back onto dark country roads. Awkward attempts at socializing in the group soon involve a racy old “adult” board game found on a shelf. When the resulting mood gets a little too weird, Kath feigns exhaustion and heads to bed.
She wakes up alone to eventually find Al claiming his girlfriend and her boyfriend drove away together after being caught “hooking up” in the woods a few hours earlier. Temporarily shocked, Kath then seems to shrug it off. Back in San Francisco, she tells a friend that Max was “fun but kind of exhausting,” their year-long relationship probably didn’t add up anyway. Still, she’s confused enough to try to track down the alleged usurper Greta – but not enough to try to reach Max in one of several weird logic loopholes here.
Stuck in a dead end, she calls the cabin owner (Dermot Mulroney as Barlow) for contact information. Instead, this retired biotech engineer seems intrigued by her plight and helping her nose out. But it turns out that almost everyone here has secret agendas and previous connections to each other, as Kath discovers when she returns to the Sonoma County crime scene.
In hindsight, there are some interesting ideas here, with a plot that could have generated considerable suspense and surprise. As it actually plays out, however, Gone in the Night seems hapless: it totally lacks the atmosphere to build a sense of ominous mystery, its twists revealed mostly in flashbacks that should unfold with sophisticated cleverness, but they do instead feel haphazardly dropped in sans concern for narrative form or editorial rhythm. A more assertive directorial style might have pulled off a story that moves from relationship drama to “mad scientist” terrain while attempting to avoid most standard genre tropes. But Horowitz sticks to a restrained, fairly flat tenor that only manages to make the eventual revelations baseless at best and ridiculous at worst.
It doesn’t help that his and Matthew Derby’s screenplay stumbles in creating fully fleshed out characters, or that it relies heavily on a simplistic notion of generational division that isn’t reinforced by either writing or casting. We’re supposed to understand that the problem between Kath and Max is that he’s a few years younger, so she’s not “adventurous” enough for him. But that quality seems to be pretty well defined as “things that 20-somethings like to do,” like going to raves, while Al and Greta, who really go to raves, are portrayed as grumpy hipster brat who hates everyone.
If Gallagher’s goofy friend seems an irritatingly childish manboy by any measure, the intended clash of lifestyles with Kath is marred by Ryder’s twitchy mannerisms – which suggest permanent quirky adolescence rather than presumably intended mature maturity. If the fear of aging and mortality turns out to be a key element of the plot, it also turns out that Gone in the Night failed to properly establish or develop the desired win.
The result is a film that does to its credit for not playing as an obvious (horror, sci-fi, or straight-forward) thriller, even if that virtue is negated by the inability to arrive at a viable alternative approach becomes. The only cast member who seems to fully live her sketchy character is Tju — although it’s not necessarily a plus that Greta is easy to understand because she’s just a nasty piece of work. She is a sharp if flat line drawing in a film whose intended planes are too faintly delineated to avoid a muddled, eventually absurd blur, despite David Bolen’s beautiful widescreen photography and other solid technical and design contributions.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/gone-in-the-night-review-winona-ryder-1235315441/ Gone in the Night review: Winona Ryder film was once called The Cow