In the creepy opening sequence of “Encounter,” a taut, genre-bending psychological thriller with nonstop drive, an asteroid crashes into Planet Earth before the title even appears. The blinding incident causes a curious chain reaction: There are bloodthirsty beetles, crawling insects, a human infected by a microbe-carrying mosquito.
Elsewhere in a grimy hotel room, ex-Marine Malik Kahn (Riz Ahmed, with laser-sharp intensity) tries to piece together the details of a mysterious virus, possibly caused by what we’ve just witnessed. As a protective measure, he sprays his body and grossly infested walls with bug spray, giving us every reason to believe that he’s assigned himself to an unofficial operation to battle what appears to be a sweeping epidemic, if the news reports on his TV are any indication.
Directed by Michael Pearce (“Beast”) with meticulous craftsmanship that’s always gripping even when it registers a touch heavy-handed, the film takes off from there, sending Malik on a rescue mission to save his young sons, both from the disease and their already infected, possibly contagious mother (Janina Gavankar). An absent father in the lives of his sons Bobby (Aditya Geddada) and Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan), Malik whisks the kids away late one night, telling the unsuspecting duo that they’re going on a road trip. The kids adore and look up to him so much that they agree. Besides, what wide-eyed child would turn down a bed-time free grown-up adventure?
The greatest trick Pearce and his co-writer Joe Barton pull with “Encounter” is styling a shrewd shift in perspectives early on in the film, shot by DP Benjamin Kracun with acute attention to light and shadows, scored unnervingly by Jed Kurzel. At first glance, that change — which occurs when Malik calls his caring parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer) from the road — might deceptively look like a cheap twist designed to shock the audience with the reveal of Malik’s true nature and intentions. Except, said gear-change happens so soon into the story that it lands more as a clever part of its premise than an unearned surprise. Our introduction to Hattie — and learning that Malik was a convicted criminal recently — is the first instance when we take a break from seeing the world from Malik’s lens and consider other possibilities about his mind and environment. And once our trust in him breaks, everything starts seeming suspect in enthralling, even wickedly entertaining ways.
Suffice it to say what appears to be a movie that liberally homages (but never shallowly imitates) the likes of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Fly” early on starts expanding its dramatic scope in measured doses, approaching something equally close to “A Perfect World,” with visual and geographic cues that recall the doomed road trip in “Thelma and Louise.” Understandably, this change in direction toward a melodramatic coming-of-age tale might disappoint those who would’ve preferred to settle in for the sci-fi flick teased in the film’s opening moments. The good news is, Pearce never quite abandons that template of the apocalyptic road thriller. He just expands the tonal complexity of his playing field, with plenty of instances of unsettling body horror and subtle social commentary mixed in.
Throughout their road trip, the Kahns get confronted by a needlessly suspicious police officer evidently pleased to daunt a brown father, a gun-toting madman and his angry, heavily-weaponized sons — a white trio whose armed incompetence Pearce can’t help but emphasize with restrained political purpose. As the scale of the chaos grows, the scribes also allow the young boys ample room to mature.
Ahmed disappears inside the part of a disturbed man confronted by his demons, delivering an increasingly intimidating performance that elevates the material. What’s surprising (and equally worth discovering) is how equally matched his artistry is by his exceptionally talented young co-stars, Chauhan in particular. Following Jay as the doubtful young boy who tries to instinctively negotiate with the tarnished image of his heroic father is particularly touching here, especially when the kid proves to possess a kind of maturity light years beyond his age.
Admittedly, the vigor in which the film’s heart-wrenching finale aims at one’s tear ducts feels a little aggressive, even shameless. But “Encounter” manages to get away with it somehow, becoming a rare kind of movie that believes in healing and second chances even in the face of crushing disappointment. It’s deceptively simple yet deeply philosophical stuff, channeled by first-rate genre filmmaking.