A tricky narrative requires deft execution, something that turns out to be well beyond the capabilities of “Gone in the Night.” Presented at SXSW earlier this year as “The Cow,” writer-director Eli Horowitz’s first feature has a wide-eyed Winona Ryder as a woman taken back when her boyfriend goes AWOL from a weekend getaway.
What at first looks like a standard missing-person suspense tale turns out to have a more complicated agenda — but it is so haphazardly advanced and clumsily articulated, the film itself seems to be fumbling around for a cohering structure or mood. Vertical Entertainment opens the indie feature on July 15; its star’s renewed visibility via the new Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is likely to lend more of a boost in eventual home-formats release.
Kath (Ryder) and Max (John Gallagher Jr.) are introduced driving north from San Francisco to redwood country, where he’s apparently rented a vacation cabin on short notice. Upon arrival, however, they find it already occupied by a younger couple, the openly hostile Al (Owen Teague) and supercilious Greta (Brianne Tju). Despite that un-welcome, it is decided the new arrivals can stay the night rather than head straight back onto dark rural roads. Awkward attempts at group socializing soon encompass a racy old “adult” board game found on a shelf. When the resulting vibe gets a tad too weird, Kath feigns exhaustion and heads off to bed.
She wakes up alone, eventually finding Al, who claims his girlfriend and her boyfriend drove off together after being caught “hooking up” in the woods some hours earlier. Temporarily shocked, Kath then seems to shrug this off. Back in San Francisco, she tells a friend that Max was “fun but kind of an effort,” their year-old relationship probably a mismatch anyway. Nonetheless, she’s puzzled enough to try tracking down supposed usurper Greta — though not enough to try reaching Max in one of several odd logic gaps here.
Hitting a dead end, she cold-calls the cabin owner (Dermot Mulroney as Barlow), trying to tease some contact info out. Instead, this apparently retired former biotech engineer seems intrigued by her plight, helping her sleuth around. But it turns out nearly everyone here has hidden agendas and prior connections with each other, as Kath realizes once she returns to the Sonoma County scene of the “crime.”
Regarded in hindsight, there are some interesting ideas here, with a plot that might’ve generated considerable tension and surprise. As it actually plays out, however, “Gone in the Night” seems hapless: Utterly lacking the atmospherics to build a sense of ominous mystery, its twists mostly revealed in flashbacks that should unfold with exacting cleverness, but instead feel arbitrarily dropped in sans concern for narrative shape or editorial rhythm. A more darlingly confident directorial style might have pulled off a story that reels from relationship drama to “mad scientist” terrain while trying to avoid most standard genre tropes. But Horowitz hews to a low-key, rather flat tenor that succeeds only in rendering the eventual revelations ill-grounded at best, ludicrous at worst.
It doesn’t help that his and Matthew Derby’s script stumbles at creating fully fleshed-out characters, or that it leans hard on a simplistic notion of generational divide that neither writing or casting reinforces. We’re meant to understand that the problem between Kath and Max is that he’s a few years younger, so she’s not “adventurous” enough for him. But that quality seems to be defined pretty much as “things twentysomethings like to do,” like going to raves, while actual rave-going twentysomethings Al and Greta are painted as sullen hipster brats who hate everybody.
If Gallagher’s goofball boyfriend seems an irritatingly childish manboy by any standard, the intended clash of lifestyles with Kath is clouded by Ryder’s twitchy mannerisms — which suggest a permanent quirky adolescence rather than the seasoned maturity presumably intended. When it emerges a key plot-driving here is fear of aging and mortality, it also turns out that is just one more thing “Gone in the Night” has failed to properly establish or develop toward the desired payoff.
The result is a movie you can credit for not playing out as an obvious (horror, sci-fi or straight-ahead) thriller, even as that virtue is undone by an inability to arrive at any workable alternative approach. The only performer who seems to fully, zestily inhabit her sketchy character is Tju — though it’s not necessarily a plus that Greta is easy to grasp because she’s simply a nasty piece of work. She’s a sharp if shallow line-drawing in a movie whose intended layers are too weakly delineated to avoid creating one confused, finally preposterous blur, despite David Bolen’s handsome widescreen photography and other solid tech and design contributions.