The night in “The Night” starts agreeably enough. A group of cosmopolitan Iranian expats in Los Angeles has met for a game night and dinner party. They discuss maternity, their jobs, life in the States and fondness for their homeland, mostly over laughs and skewers of cheese and vegetables.
For married couple Babak and Neda (Shahab Hosseini and Niousha Noor), signs of discontent puncture this good feeling. They’ve been arguing lately, and Babak has been sneaking clandestine cigarettes behind her back, and he’s nursing an especially wicked toothache. Look closely enough, and in the room with their infant child, a shadow creeps across the frame.
So begins this meticulously crafted nightmare from co-writer/director Kourosh Ahari, which gains paranormal traction when the family of three leaves the party, and the nocturnal streets of L.A. take on a murky implacability, their defining features disappearing into a foreboding anonymity. Even the GPS doesn’t know where they are, frantically recalculating to no avail. When Babak, who has had too much to drink, appears to run over an animal despite evidence to the contrary, they decide it’s best to expend the night at a hotel.
Little do they know their choice of lodging is a time-looping, seemingly sentient multidimensional vortex. Or perhaps it chose them. Call it “Iranian-American Horror Story,” or “the Iranian ‘Shining,’” and you wouldn’t be far off. Like Kubrick before him, Ahari appreciates the mazy, psychologically punishing possibilities of a haunted hotel, and milks them all: the creepy receptionist (George Maguire) with the missing fingers and morbid, unsolicited musings on mortality; unnerving sounds of nail files, dripping faucets and lost children without provenance; a police officer that materializes illogically outside the door of their room; a bedside clock that moves forward, then backward, then forward again.
Ahari’s breakthrough film—the first American-produced movie to see release in Iran since the 1979 Revolution—is the sort that precludes spoilers, because it keeps its audience off-kilter through the final frames. It also respects viewers’ intelligences, dropping hints, through characters’ idle chitchat early on, that accrue significance later, and rewarding their close inspection of the film’s rich and layered mise-en-scene. Tricks of the eye are the director’s stock in trade.
Ahari’s approach isn’t as mystifying as, say, David Lynch’s surrealist enigmas. “The Night” is schematic by comparison. But it is rewarding in different ways, especially for those attuned to the subtext of its terrifying premise, which deals with a relationship curdled by resentments and corroded by secrets too painful to reveal. Keeping those secrets, it seems, may be far more damaging. For a movie called “The Night,” this is a movie about the necessity of letting sunlight pierce our darkest corners. You never know; viewing it may just save you a few sessions of therapy.
“The Night” opens today at IPIC Theaters in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, and Movies at Wellington. It is available for rental at home on Amazon Video, iTunes, Apple TV, YouTube and other providers.