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Review: The Thing that Goes Bump in The Night Is the Perception of Reality

It’s at the juncture between horror and philosophical surrealism that The Night is at its most provocative.

The Night
Photo: IFC Films

Kourosh Ahari’s The Night is the rare film that encapsulates its themes in the first scene without revealing its long game. It opens in total darkness, with a voiceover in Farsi giving the instructions for the parlor game Mafia: “It is night. Everyone, close your eyes.” The camera tracks along a darkened hallway toward a bathroom where Babak (Shahab Hosseini), afflicted by a toothache, swills mouthwash. He examines himself in the mirror, and for a moment, his pained reflection disappears. He rubs his eyes. “It’s morning, wake up.”

That voiceover becomes dialogue as Babak emerges from this private mental inscape to an apartment in Los Angeles, where he’s seated with five friends playing Mafia. His wife, Neda (Niousha Jafarian), believes him to be the killer, and as the game plays out, it gives rise to flashes of antagonism in their relationship. The audience sees how Neda mistrusts Babak—who, for his part, is a practiced liar—and learns how their baby serves as both adhesive and irritant in their marriage (Hosseini and Jafarian are exceptional at accumulating tension through body language rife with fired glances and twinges of annoyance). Babak and Neda put on a show of intimacy for their friends, but under competitive pressure, the social mask has slipped. Lit like neo-noir, the scene sets up The Night’s themes of light versus dark, sleeping versus waking, and truth versus lies, all playing out within a framework of ironclad rules.

This opening stretch of The Night is so crammed with hints and details that it could easily function as a short in its own right. Here, it’s a distorted mirror image of the rest of Ahari’s film. It isn’t until Babak and Neda set off in their car, alone with their child, that The Night begins in earnest. Misled by a malfunctioning GPS, so mundane yet dread-inducing, as much as Babak’s alcohol- and THC-muddled brain, the couple can’t seem to find their way home. As evening shades into night, their GPS delivers them to the Hotel Normandie.

With its labyrinthine corridors, uncanny décor, and even a ghost child, the Normandie is very much cut in the mold of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. One of many unsettling paintings hanging from its walls is a variation on René Magritte’s Not to be Reproduced, which depicts a man looking into a mirror at the back of his head. As Babak and Neda settle down to sleep, they’re reawakened constantly as the night drags on and on. In a hellscape of insomnia exacerbated by dripping faucets, thudding footsteps, and dreams that overwrite narrative progress, Ahari confidently accumulates and subverts horror tropes.

The filmmaker riddles the narrative with McGuffins and jump-scare fake-outs that create a palpable sense of paranoia as Babak and Neda lose the ability to distinguish reality from dreams and hallucinations. Meanwhile, their tenuous situation as Iranian immigrants in an increasingly nationalist United States is handled with subtlety and nuance, coming to the fore whenever they’re compelled to speak English with ever-suspicious Americans, including a police officer (Michael Graham) whose partner turns out to be a doppelganger. Try as they might, they cannot leave the hotel, recalling Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.

It’s at this juncture between horror and philosophical surrealism that The Night is at its most provocative. But the film undercuts itself by revealing that dawn and escape from the Normandie are tied to Babak and Neda telling each other the truth. The horror evaporates when the mise en abyme of the couple’s seemingly unending situation is resolved in a vat of reductive moralism, as if the boundaries of truth and fiction were always self-evident, a stance that totters when the film starts introducing arguably pro-life imagery.

The trouble with referencing The Shining is that Ahari invites comparison to a notoriously inscrutable film with as many interpretations as viewers. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic sticks in the mind as a puzzle with no one solution, whereas The Night blunders into exposing its own rules, producing a catharsis at its own expense. Although its one-to-one allegory reflects the “post-truth” quagmire of contemporary American politics, it’s much too blunt. Mercifully, then, Ahari pulls out of a nosedive with a stunning final scene, returning the audience to the hermetic space of secrets and mirrors that opens his film.

Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Niousha Jafarian, George Maguire, Elester Latham, Michael Graham, Armin Mehr, Leah Oganyan, Golbarg Khavari, Gia Mora, Ali Khousheshi, Lily V.K. Director: Kourosh Ahari Screenwriter: Milad Jarmooz, Kourosh Ahar Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2020 Buy: Video

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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