Director Michael Pearce, who also co-wrote with Joe Barton, obviously likes one-word, multivalent titles – his previous film was the Jersey-set serial killer/deadly relationship movie Beast. There’s a risk to this stratagem – both titles have been used many times on more or less throwaway movies and so even original films with such generic monickers are at risk of slipping down the algorithms (as an Amazon Original, this dropped off the front page with alarming rapidity). Pearce also tends to take basic situations that have been done over and over and remount them carefully, with character nuance and specific locale as USPs … Beast was a mid-90s direct-to-video erotic thriller, and this is a riff on Take Shelter, Bug, Midnight Special and several other fringe-SF studies in fractured an adult male American paranoia that sucks in but also appalls younger folk.
It opens with a Thing-like object crashing from space and riffs on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) or Phase IV to suggest that insectile microparasites are transforming people into alien meat puppets – a few tiny effects shots of worms wriggling in eyes or mouths sell this – then Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed), an ex-Marine who has been away on a secret mission, collects his sons Jay (Lucian-River Chahuan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) from the home of his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) and her creepy new husband (Misha Collins) at the dead of night and turns the rescue mission into a road trip, urgently telling the kids about the aliens. Gradually, Jay catches on that his Dad has actually been in prison and suffers a bad case of PTSD – and the sinister forces pursuing the runaways aren’t aliens but an anti-kidnapping task force.
The America this road movie runs through is as depopulated and ghostly as that of Nomadland, but a lot more hostile – though Pearce layers in multiple levels of irony. When Malik is pulled over in the middle of the night by a taser-wielding white cop who escalates a traffic stop into a firearms possession bust, we can’t help but channel Malik’s Jordan Peele/Twilight Zone like translation of the BLM movement into a justified terror of a white guy with a badge and a gun … but he is an armed fugitive who’s kidnapped a couple of minors and driven them across state lines ahead of a large-scale manhunt. We still hate the cop, but he’s trying to make a good collar. Later, in an all-but-abandoned town, Malik invades a house to steal a car and runs into a shadowy old guy (Keith Szarabajka) with a lawn sign that reads ‘trespassers will be shot – survivors will be shot again’ and admits he has no trust in the federal government. This guy, like the cop, appears to Malik as an alien drone but he’s also an exemplar of contemporary American paranoia – when Malik tells him he’s a veteran of the war on terror, the shotgun-owner takes note of his skin tone and asks on which side he fought. The homeowner’s sons (Brennan Keel Cook, Bill Dawes) are heavily-armed but poorly-trained militia types who go after Malik on their own to make an arrest – even evading a motorcade of federal authorities on a similar mission – and bungle things so badly he ends up with the last thing he needs in the circumstances … more guns.
The heart of the film is Chauhan’s outstanding performance as the ten-year-old forced to be an adult by a loved, admired father who’s also bipolar and dangerous but also stuck with an eight-year-old brother who’s a little kid prone to hyperactivity and tantrums (as part of being super-Dad Malik lets Bobby have as much syrup as he wants, because his stepfather has limited his intake – which the expected results). Less compelling the is business with parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer) and two contrasting federal agents – humane Shep (Rory Cochrane) and gung ho Lance (Shane McCrae) – who are on the trail of the runaways but just spend their time clashing over differing approaches to bringing an end to the chase – Hattie wants to protect her client, Shep wants to save the kids, Lance wants to fire off guns. Like Beast, it’s a gorgeous-looking film – the sort of American road movie film buffs who grew up in other countries love to make – with central performances that elevate slightly rote characterisations.