TIFF Review – Encounter
The stars above give birth to a meteor that plummets to the Earth. The meteor’s debris carries foreign microorganisms that make their way up the food chain through detailed close-ups of insects to the ultimate host, humans, via biting insects. The opening scenes of Encounter (2021) set up the film’s plot quite exquisitely. Encounter presents itself as science fiction, but it morphs into a dramatic film about a father fighting for his sons against the outside world, which he deems unsafe and full of terror.
Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is an ex-Marine who has been traveling around the country investigating and avoiding the alien parasites that are slowly taking over people’s bodies. The constant presence of bug spray and avoiding biting insects is the only way he can combat this new threat. The film shifts its focus to a farm where Malik’s sons live with their mother, Piya (Janina Gavankar), and her boyfriend, Dylan (Misha Collins). They appear to live an idyllic life on the farm. However, the oldest son Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan), holds a grudge against the boyfriend. The youngest son Bobby (Aditya Geddada), is at the stage of life where everything is fun. We learn through Piya that Malik has not seen his sons for two years, although there are letters that Malik writes to Jay to keep him updated. The life of all changes when Malik arrives in the middle of the night and takes his sons in an attempt to save them from the alien parasites. To the boys, it is a fun road trip, but to Malik, it is a rescue mission.
There is an unspoken trust between a parent and a child. The parent is dedicated to nurturing and keeping a child safe. The first thought of a child is not to distrust the parent. This trust and sacred bond between Malik and Jay and Bobby are evident, even though they have been separated for two years. There is nothing out of the ordinary to be woken in the middle of the night and taken on a road trip. The sons look up to their dad; he has never done anything to make them not love their father. Jay is old enough to have some life experience and know of disappointment. The idiosyncrasies in his father’s behavior are noteworthy but not red flags. It is only as these odd mental notes stack up that Jay has to question his father and start to listen to his gut. The pain is evident on Jay’s face as he realizes that his father may not be making the best choices for his sons, putting them in harm’s way.
On the other hand, Malik is adamant about his sole cause in taking his sons away from their mother. The audience is placed in the same mindset as Malik. We are on his side, experiencing everything he does visually. The audience doesn’t need to question the motives of Malik because we see those alien parasites and what they do to the people they inhabit. Even when the first obstacle in Malik and his sons’ journey is against a police officer and results in bodily harm, we believe in Malik and exalt his choices.
The continual back and forth of what to believe may be true is due to the special effects and the performance of Riz Ahmed. We can see the insects and what they do to people’s eyes, a sure sign they have been infected. Ahmed sells it even further with a superb performance that exposes the desperation of a father and the panic of trying to save their lives. Ahmed uses a peculiar accent for his role, more of a rural, country-sounding voice mixed with the straightforward talk of someone in the military, or at least that is how I would describe it. As the film progresses towards the end, there is no doubt of the love for his sons, even when up against the world for not seeing what he does. Ahmed takes Malik from a caring father to a precision soldier in a matter of seconds. The PTSD also comes roaring back as he is put back in that position by a couple of wannabe militiamen. Plainly, Malik is not a one-dimensional character, and Ahmed is able to create a multi-faceted character that is slowly peeled back through the duration of the film to reveal the complexities and history that makes Malik’s actions justified in his mind.
As Encounter draws to its conclusion, the viewer has changed their opinion about the existence of the alien parasites multiple times, thanks to a tight script by Michael Pearce (also the director) and Joe Barton. The science-fiction aspect of the film goes to the wayside as Malik and Jay fight for each other against what is increasingly looking like an oppressive future for Malik. It is all taken to a dramatic end and somewhat over-the-top standoff that ends the viewer’s questions. Had the last scenes been taken down a notch and ended faster, the film would have been better for it and still had the same emotional resonance. Encounter lures an audience in for an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type film, but it ends up being about the love between fathers and sons and the lengths they will go to protect each other.