Tricky narrative requires skillful execution, something that proves far beyond “Gone in the Night’s” capabilities. Premiering at SXSW earlier this year as “The Cow,” writer-director Eli Horowitz’s feature debut has a wide-eyed Winona Ryder as the woman picked up when her boyfriend is away on a weekend getaway. ‘a weekend.
What at first glance looks like a standard missing person suspense tale turns out to have a more complicated agenda – but it’s so haphazardly advanced and awkwardly articulated that the film itself seems to be searching for a coherent structure or mood. Vertical Entertainment opens the independent feature on July 15; its star’s renewed visibility via Netflix’s new ‘Stranger Things’ should provide an additional boost to the eventual release of home formats.
Kath (Ryder) and Max (John Gallagher Jr.) are driven north from San Francisco to redwood country, where he’s apparently rented a vacation cabin on short notice. When they arrive, however, they find it already occupied by a younger couple, the openly hostile Al (Owen Teague) and the haughty Greta (Brianne Tju). Despite this inconvenience, it is decided that new arrivals can stay the night rather than returning directly to the dark rural roads. Clumsy attempts at group socialization soon encompass a racy old “adult” board game found on a shelf. When the resulting vibe gets a little too weird, Kath feigns exhaustion and heads for her bed.
She wakes up alone and eventually finds Al, who claims his girlfriend and boyfriend left together after they were caught “hanging up” in the woods hours earlier. Temporarily shocked, Kath then seems unaware of this. Back in San Francisco, she told a friend that Max was “fun but kind of an effort”, their year-long relationship probably being a mismatch anyway. Still, she’s perplexed enough to try to track down the supposed usurper Greta – but not enough to try to reach Max in one of the many weird logic loopholes here.
At a standstill, she cold calls the owner of the cabin (Dermot Mulroney as Barlow), trying to tease some contact information. Instead, this seemingly retired former biotech engineer seems intrigued by his plight, helping him sleuth. But it turns out that almost everyone here has hidden agendas and prior ties to each other, as Kath realizes once she returns to the Sonoma County “crime” scene.
Looking back, there are some interesting ideas here, with a plot that could have generated considerable tension and surprise. However, as it actually unfolds, “Gone in the Night” seems unfortunate: Completely lacking the atmosphere to create an eerie sense of mystery, its twists and turns are mostly revealed in flashbacks that should unfold with exacting intelligence, but rather feel arbitrarily abandoned with no regard for narrative form or editorial pacing. A more confident style of director might have pulled off a story that shifts from relationship drama to “mad scientist” terrain while trying to avoid most of the standard genre tropes. But Horowitz adopts a low-key, rather flat tenor that only succeeds in making any revelations unfounded at best, ridiculous at worst.
It doesn’t help that his and Matthew Derby’s screenplay stumbles to create fully fleshed out characters, or that it leans heavily on a simplistic notion of generational divide that neither the writing nor the casting reinforces. 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 defined roughly as “things twentysomethings like to do,” like going to raves, while real twentysomethings Al and Greta are portrayed as brooding kids who hate everyone.
If Gallagher’s awkward boyfriend seems like an irritating childish boy in every way, the clash of lifestyles with Kath is clouded by Ryder’s edgy ways – which suggest a permanent eccentric adolescence rather than the seasoned maturity presumably intended. When it appears that a key plot element here is the fear of aging and mortality, it also turns out to be just one more thing that “Gone in the Night” has. failed to establish or develop properly towards the desired gain.
The result is a movie you can credit for not playing like an obvious thriller (horror, sci-fi, or straight-up), even if that virtue is negated by a failure to come up with a viable alternative approach. The only performer who seems to fully and enthusiastically inhabit her sketchy persona is Tju – although it’s not necessarily a plus that Greta is easy to pick up as she’s simply unpleasant work. She’s a sharp but shallow line art in a film whose intended layers are too loosely delineated to avoid creating a confusing, ultimately absurd blur, despite David Bolen’s fine widescreen photography and other solid contributions to technology and design.