Please be advised that The Night involves potentially triggering content. For spoiler details, please see the featured comment.
My apologies to the hospitality industry for how they have been presented in classic cinematic horrors like Psycho and The Shining, but … the fear makes sense, right? You’re sleeping somewhere that isn’t your own home. Your neighbors are people you don’t know. You are, by very nature of staying somewhere transitory, in a place you don’t recognize. What horror, then, when that place might instead recognize you. That is the tension explored by director Kourosh Ahari and his co-writer Milad Jarmooz, whose The Night is noticeably inspired by directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick and myriad Russian writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol. But just when you think you can tell where The Night is going, it takes a sharp turn into something existentially troubling and frighteningly singular. (And congratulations to Ahari and Jarmooz, who oversaw a heavily Iranian filmmaking crew, and who have a historic achievement with this film: The Night, according to IFC Films, is “the first US-produced film to receive distribution in Iran in four decades”.)
Iranian horror movies like Under the Shadow and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night were both set in that country, and incorporated war trauma and supernatural fables, respectively, into their spooky narratives. In Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, a mother and her daughter experience strange things that could be caused by a djinn grasping onto the sadness and loneliness of their lives during the Iran-Iraq War. In Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a young vampire wanders a dusty Iranian village, preying on drug dealers until she, to the surprise of herself, falls in love. Both of those films played with established genres, the ghost story and the Western, and adapted those formats for narratives that addressed life inside a changing Iran.
The Night, meanwhile, takes a different approach by setting its narrative in the United States, in the Iranian expat community of Los Angeles, and incorporating into its mysterious plot the difficulties of assimilation and starting over in a new place. Sure, LA has such a strong Iranian subculture that we call it Tehrangeles. But for many Iranian expats, it will never be the same as the country they left, and so the question here is how you situate yourself in a country you don’t recognize, and how you behave yourself when you’re paired with someone you realize you don’t know very well at all. So much of the horror of The Night comes from unknowability, and the instability it causes. There is an almost Edgar Allan Poe-like atmosphere of doom throughout the film, as if anything could happen—and nothing you could do could stop it.
Babak (Shahab Hosseini, of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and The Salesman) and Neda (Niousha Jafarian) are a married couple living together in the U.S. with their baby daughter Shabnam. They spent years apart, with Babak alone in the U.S. and Neda alone in Iran, and their reunion—despite resulting in Shabnam—is otherwise rocky. Neda thinks Babak drinks too much, and is frustrated with his refusal to admit that he doesn’t know his own limit (the translated English subtitles for some reason leave off the word “again” when she fights with him about his alcohol and smoking, but more than once, Neda specifically mentions her recurring anger). Babak thinks Neda is a nag, and gets irritated by how much she harangues him. They recently got matching tattoos—some tribal-looking design they picked out of the tattoo artist’s portfolio, without knowing its meaning—but their behavior toward each other while attending a dinner party with friends is more aggressive than affectionate.
Things come to a head—well, a first head—when they leave the party and get lost on what should have been an easy 30-minute ride home. Babak is sloppy. The GPS keeps driving them in circles. Neda sees something in the road: maybe a child, maybe a cat. Babak sees something when they get out of the car: maybe a cat, maybe a woman. With so much weirdness going on, they decide to check into a hotel. Hotel Normandie seems innocuous at first: the locked front door is probably a thoughtful security measure; the standoffish concierge is probably just tired; the footsteps Babak and Neda hear running around the hotel are probably just other guests, since the concierge said the place was booked up. But the old-timey wood-paneled design; the blinking red light that illuminates the entire lobby with a bloody glow; the creepy painting Babak spots in a hallway, its mirrored imagery impossible in our reality—what is this place?
Incrementally, Ahari and Jarmooz dial up the tension, and Hosseini’s and Jafarian’s performances as Babak and Neda, respectively, rise to the occasion. He’s sweaty, angsty, and has a temper. It’s clear Neda is used to biting her tongue, and to diminishing herself to make space for him. She’s exhausted, irritated, prone to bringing up the past. You understand why he would be tired of her constant reminders of mistakes and misdeeds. This couple is barely clinging on, and the horrors of this night aren’t doing them any favors. Is it strange that what Babak hears and sees, Neda doesn’t, and that what Neda hears and sees, Babak doesn’t? Or is that dissonance just a manifestation of something about their relationship that they might not realize yet, but the hotel—or whatever is lurking inside it—already does?
To be fair, The Night demands patience at first. Ahari almost overdoes the horror tropes (jump scares, George Maguire’s creepy receptionist, Navid Hejazi’s bracing score) throughout its first hour, and if you’re a keen genre watcher, you might think you can piece together where some of this is going. Certain setups, from ominous strangers to disappearing tormenters, seem quite familiar. But nothing in The Night happens unintentionally. Every time Ahari tricks our eye with his use of negative space, every time Babak hears the leaky sink dripping another drop of water in their hotel room’s bathroom, every booming knock on the door that unnerves Neda, every grievance Babak and Neda spit at each other, serves to exacerbate the mysterious night they’re suffering through together. “Have you gone crazy again?” Neda spits at Babak during one of their fights, but The Night defies such easy explanation. There’s more lurking here, in the lies we tell ourselves and each other, that you should experience for yourself.
The Night is available in limited theaters, on VOD, and for digital rental as of January 29.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Image sources (in order of posting): IFC Films, IFC Films