SXSW Review: The Overnight

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The Overnight

Here we have a pair of newcomers to Southern California, watching their little boy on the playground. Oh look, he's sharing his gummy worms with another boy. Oh look, here comes the boy's dad, fussing about the non-organic ingredients in the gummy worms. And just when you think this is going to turn into another Carnage, it turns out the dad is kidding, the atmosphere lightens, and everyone becomes friends ... for the moment.

After the above prologue, The Overnight sticks to its title, set primarily at a dinner party. And as the evening slowly unravels, the tension builds quite effectively and it's difficult to tell what this movie is and where it's going. It's funny, but is it ultimately a comedy? Will it be a dark comedy with a body count? Some kind of inversion on a home invasion film? Eventually you give up wondering and accept that you won't be able to relax until the movie ends.

Emily (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott), eager to make friends in their new neighborhood, accept a dinner invitation from Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) after meeting on the aforementioned playground. The little boys are fast friends, but Emily and Alex are more hesitant about a couple that seems a little bit ... off. Kurt wants to show off Charlotte's acting talent by showing a video clip that only enhances the awkward feelings in the air. Kurt shows Alex his studio, with art that is ... unexpected. Charlotte takes Emily on an errand that is ... entirely unexpected. If I keep trying to describe the atmosphere, I'll run out of ellipses.

And yet, time after time, when I worried someone was going to take out a hatchet or a can of ether or who-knows-what, The Overnight would skillfully shift into moments where the characters show their human and vulnerable sides, often simultaneously sweet and humorous. And yet the tonal shifts and tension feel organic, not like a rollercoaster. Well, perhaps it's a slower-paced rollercoaster made from locally sourced materials by artisans, on a dark night where you can't see the tracks ahead and are hoping like hell there's no loop.

The four adult cast members complement one another beautifully, often seen in different pairs throughout the film. The male characters are the most strongly written -- Schwartzman in particular, his offbeat character producing the primary source of suspense. The other actors add nuance to what could have been fairly bland characters, often reacting rather than acting.

Writer-director Patrick Brice is masterful at creating suspense and tension, as shown previously in his movie Creep. What I can't determine is how this movie plays if you haven't seen Creep -- are you expecting peril, or just amused by the characters' increasingly strange situations? Like it or not, one's perception of a movie is influenced by one's knowledge of the filmmakers' (and actors') previous work. (If you don't believe me, go watch The Zero Theorem and try not to think about Brazil.)

On balance, I'd call The Overnight primarily a comedy, brought out by the film's nice sense of symmetry, with some brilliantly matched setups and payoffs. But you might need to see a massage therapist afterward.

Austin connections: Former Austinite Mark Duplass (who co-starred in and produced Brice's Creep) is an executive producer on The Overnight.