A night that never ends is at the heart of Iranian-American filmmaker Kourosh Ahari's mesmerizing psychological horror/thriller The Night, having its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday, January 18th during the acclaimed fest's opening weekend.
There's something mesmerizing about the opening scene in this debut feature from Ahari, a sense of normalcy amidst an atmosphere resembling something close to dread. We sense that something's amiss, though for now there's a strange calm as Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Neda (Niousha Jafarian) relax among friends with their newborn child not far away.
The gathering will end.
Eventually, they will find themselves taking shelter for the night at a quiet, intimate hotel where their only company is the seemingly constant flicker of a nearby traffic light and the eerily solemn presence of the hotel receptionist (George Maguire).
Of course, this hotel has secrets. Of course, so do Babak and Neda. Trapped inside this hotel surrounded by some insidious force that won't let them go, Babak and Neda are forced to face the secrets that have come between them and the reality that this night truly may never end.
The Night builds suspense from its opening moments, Ahari masterfully planting the blossoming seeds of psychological horror in the roots of life's seemingly mundane moments. There's an inner mystery within both Babak and Neda, it's a mystery perfectly captured by both Hosseini and Jafarian as they vacillate somewhere between loving spouse/parent and troubled soul.
Hosseini, who was awarded the Palme d'Or for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 for Farhadi's Academy Award-winning The Salesman, is absolutely riveting here as a man who constantly wins our sympathy despite an aching suspicion he doesn't completely deserve it. It's a marvelous performance, simultaneously vulnerable and menacing with an abundance of evidence that Babak has demons both internal and external.
As Neda, Niousha Jafarian is equally amazing here. Jafarian plays things quieter, her layered complexities slowly being revealed and her complex character gaining in complexity over the course of the nearly two-hour film. It's a tremendous performance, steeped in tradition yet slowly revealed as so much more.
While the vast majority of The Night revolves around Babak and Neda, and their beautiful baby of course, the film's ensemble cast is strong down to the bit players. As the hotel receptionist, George Maguire builds the mystery and never completely gives his secret away. Maguire's performance is stoic yet brooding, dark yet eerily comforting.
The Night is the kind of film where every little thing matters. You have to pay attention to the lights and the flickers, the hallways and the faces.
Maz Makhani's lensing for the film makes effective use of dark shadows and deceptive lights in building scenes that offer you the kind of comfort where you start to fall asleep acutely aware that you dare not do so. There's an intimacy to Makhani's lens, yet it's the kind of intimacy where you feel like your personal space has been invaded and your skin kind of crawls.
Sepideh Abdolvahab edits with a precision that catches you off guard, at times extending the scene to maximize the suspense and other times offering up such a quick fade you wonder yourself if you really saw what you think you saw.
The Night is an outstanding debut from Ahari, a stylish and substantial thriller that features both beautiful imagery and a compelling, intelligently structured story that draws you in and holds on to you until the very end. Destined to be a festival favorite, one can only hope that an indie distributor picks this film up and it reaches the audiences it so richly deserves.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic