A single clenched fist may not be noticeable to anyone else, but it can definitely raise an individual’s pulse rate. Watching Beyond the Night is an equivalent experience: as the pace of the film slowly, yet inevitably increases, a quiet sense of dread builds.
It’s a mysterious thriller; the characters, rather than their actions, remain the primary focus in Jason Noto’s original screenplay. Events are set in motion when a vehicular accident causes the death of a young woman with a young son. Her husband, Ray Marrow (Zane Holtz), is called home from military duty in the Middle East to bury his wife and assume parental duties for his son Lawrence (Azhy Robertson); he is not prepared for either responsibility.
Ray’s first major decision is to take his wife’s body home to where they grew up in a rural coal mining town that has long been on the decline. It’s a cold place, both in regard to the weather and also to the wintry emotions of the town’s residents. They all know each other well, perhaps too well; everyone is living in a state of unhappy, mutual distrust.
While Ray suffers from grief and guilt over his wife’s passing, young Lawrence begins ‘acting out,’ misbehaving as any child might, especially one who has only truly known one parent. He resists Ray’s overtures, which feel like the kind of obligatory gestures that resemble what he imagines fathers should do with their sons. He doesn’t really know what he should or how he should behave, and he really doesn’t want anyone else’s advice. (Zane Holtz captures his character’s coiled frustration well.)
Ray’s sister, Caroline Marrow (Tammy Blanchard), is a local cop working under a blowhard in the sheriff’s office. She remained at home, trying to be a bulwark as the town slowly slips away from all its residents. The flames are flickering, but they’ve not yet gone out in the sad little place.
Ray’s own parents are kind enough and supportive as they can be, or as much as the stand-offish Ray allows, so it’s odd to consider that the most naked, most outward expression of loss emanates from Bernie Coleman (Chance Kelly), a gruff fellow who still mourns the disappearance of his teenage daughter some years before. Mostly, Bernie funnels his grief into his activity as the town’s biggest criminal; he’s still very small-time — the town is very small! — though he acts as though he’s a big-city mafia kingpin.
Kelly is a recognizable face with a large body of good work behind him in supporting roles, and it’s a pleasure to see him with more room to define his character. In other films, the local crime boss would be a pat stereotype, but Kelly makes Bernie Coleman an understandably tortured sort of fellow who doesn’t know how to process his feelings, and would probably reject the very idea that he needs to “process his feelings.” He’s a singular figure who holds sway over the town and casts a shadow over Ray’s attempts to corral his son’s unusual activity.
Still coming to grips with his own grief, Ray is in no way prepared when his son begins acting … well, very weird, and starts saying things about Bernie’s missing daughter that he could not possibly know … or could he … somehow know more, something vital, about what happened to Bernie’s daughter? Could he reveal the perpetrator?
A small-scale drama of grief and sadness and loss, Beyond the Night soon enough begins to unveil an even darker heart, hinting at unknown (or unknowable) forces that may be motivating young Lawrence. Yet it’s a level-headed thing.
Directing from his own script, Jason Noto avoids sensationalism, keeping the film grounded in recognizable reality that occasionally erupts into well-motivated, understandable rage. Director of photography Daniel Sharnoff, editor Kathryn J. Schubert, and production designer Hannah Stoddard provide able support without calling undue attention to their fine work.
Sometimes one clenched fist is joined by another, and then the entire body tenses up, waiting, waiting, waiting for answers to come. Beyond the Night teases at those mysteries, evoking unease that persists beyond the final frame.
The film opens theatrically in Los Angeles on Friday, January 11, 2019, via Breaking Glass Pictures. It will be available to watch on various Video On Demand (VOD) platforms on January 29 and then will be released on DVD on February 5.