[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The Overnight opens today in limited release.]
Name a realistic fear. Are you scared that a man in a hockey mask will hack you up with a machete? Are you scared that zombies will devour the Earth? Are you scared that your board game is infested with ghosts? Those are fun, supernatural fears. But a more tangible fear is the fear of an awkward situation. We don’t want to be uncomfortable, and we want people to like us. Patrick Brice’s The Overnight is a horror-comedy where the desire to be polite transforms into a night full of manipulation, reluctance acceptance, and breaking personal boundaries. There’s never a threat of physical violence, but the film knows how to make us squirm.
Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) have just moved to Los Angeles, and don’t know anyone in the city. Like many adults, they’re not sure how to make new friends, but one afternoon while Alex and Emily are in the park with their son RJ (R.J. Hermes), they meet Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), who is out with his son Max (Max Moritt). He welcomes them to the neighborhood, and invites them over for dinner. Eager to make new friends, Alex and Emily come over to spend time with Kurt and his lovely wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche), but what seemed at first like a nice, casual evening slowly spirals into a night of increasingly strange events.
Alex and Emily are at a disadvantage not only because they want to make new friends, but also because they’re new to L.A. The city carries the reputation/stigma of having more liberal values among its upper-middle class, and unexpected behavior can be chalked up to stereotypical eccentricities. In other cities, it would be odd that Kurt has set up a private desalination machine for his home, but maybe that’s just L.A. culture. And perhaps it’s a little too far to get stoned while their kids are sleeping upstairs, but it would be rude to turn down the offer.
Jason Schwartzman has the unique ability to make the affable also seem a little disingenuous, manipulative, and condescending. If we were in Alex’s position, we might be charmed, but watching from an outsider’s perspective, it’s clear that Kurt is slowly wearing away at his defenses. Charlotte tries to do the same with Emily, who’s slightly more reticent and suspicious. This isn’t merely an unusual night out. Kurt and Charlotte have ulterior motives, and we can see what they’re going for.
There’s a farcical aspect to the whole story, and while the movie can be funny (Scott and Schwartzman have an amazing scene together), it also plays by the same rules as a creepy thriller. Alex and Emily are trapped by social norms, and they’re in thrall of Kurt and Charlotte in more ways than one. We have the same advice as we do for any survivor girl wandering alone in the woods: “RUN.”
Brice has delivered a unique and clever movie even if the foreplay goes on too long, which is saying something since the film is only 80 minutes. Without its charismatic and likable main cast, the movie could be all concept and poor execution, but the leads perfectly play into the bizarre dynamic. While we may never land in Alex and Emily’s precise circumstances, we know their fear and anxiety, and The Overnight manages to tap into both even if it becomes a little too draining. You’ll never be so grateful to have dick jokes cut the tension.