The directorial debut of Kourosh Ahari pays off a slow-burn start to craft a visually engaging and complex ghost story.
As much as the movie business loves to spotlight a first-time director, it’s rare that a first effort lives up to the hype. It’s even rarer that a ghost story, a notoriously finicky genre, gets critics raving. The Night manages to earn all of the advanced praise, introducing audiences to a new talent whose technique hearkens back to masters of the genre like Hitchcock or Kubrick, while creating a film that stands tall on its own merits.
The Night (2021)
After a night out with friends, an exhausted married couple, Babak (Shahab Hosseini), Neda (Niousha Noor) and their baby take shelter in the grand, but eerie Hotel Normandie. Throughout a seemingly endless night, mysterious disturbances ruin their night’s rest as Babak and Neda soon realize they’re locked-in with a malevolent force that hungers for the dark secrets they’ve kept from one another.
Director Kourosh Ahari does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere. The Night deploys really deft cinematography, all aimed at keeping you on edge and unsettled. Ahari really controls the camera, alternating long tracking shots, frequent drawn-out close shots, and canted Dutch angles. It all adds up to a beautifully shot film that always feels slightly disorienting and vaguely threatening.
Tiles in a Mosaic
One of the most effective ways to create fear and unease in a ghost story is to repeat motifs. The Night takes this a step further, building its recurring images and themes in larger and larger patterns like a fractal design. Tiny little details go from out of place, to haunting, to genuinely frightening as they ramp up in meaning and intensity. In the back of my mind I kept waiting for certain details to get paid off, and nearly wrote them off, until suddenly they would pop into the frame again, now with a lot more voltage.
On paper, Ahari’s film doesn’t have a lot of runway to get into the air. For 90% of the film there’s just two characters (and a baby…but, you know, it’s a baby!) and only one location, the hotel. Ahari nearly runs up against the limitations of this equation, especially in the middle portion of the film, but manages to escape the trap again and again.
The beginning of the film is very much centered on Babak, who is not exactly a sympathetic character. Just as I was getting tired of his POV, the film shifts to Neda’s perspective. As the film starts to run out of ways to play Neda and Babak against each other, there’s a sudden shift to them cooperating. As that starts to wear on, the plot adds more characters that keep it fresh, and then circles back to the couple being antagonists again. Each time I felt the film had mined out the vein it was working on, Ahari anticipated the saturation and pivoted to something fresh.
Playing with Fire
The Night does play with danger a few too many times. It’s easy to get carried away with recurring motifs, and what is meant to be a spiral can sometimes get alarmingly close to just being a closed loop. Fans of the genre will also spot several homages that flirt with being a bit too obvious.
The first half of the film is certainly a slow burn, and it’s not all necessarily the director making sure his dominoes are in a row. Sometimes characters have to be a little thick or too eager to see the worst in each other as the film tries to keep certain types of tensions going, or to keep alternative explanations of events relevant long after they’ve stopped being plausible. The camera work can come off as a bit indulgent in places, like Ahari got a little bit smitten with his long takes and certain tableaus.
Stay the Night
Luckily right around the 50 minute mark, The Night begins really charging down the runway and getting airborne. Ahari’s technique of dangling escape for his characters or explanations for his audience and then yanking them out of reach becomes a masochistic pleasure instead of a frustration. Coupled with his haunting cinematography, a strong set of performances from Hosseini and Noor, and a dedication to allow the film to be opaque and challenging, The Night winds up being one haunting experience.