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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Night Swim’ review: Hold your breath, forever

By Alissa Wilkinson

Hollywood horror often attempts to work out collective anxiety about the suburbs, that place full of pleasant-looking houses creaking with ghosts and terrors. Suburban life is, admittedly, fundamentally strange, with neighborhoods full of atomized worlds and natural features turned into individual, highly-controlled assets. A forest becomes manicured bushes. A lake becomes a pool.

Pools are ubiquitous across the American suburbs (just peek out the window when you fly), and the affluence, comfort and fun they represent can turn a middling kid into the most popular one at school, at least during the hot months. They are also ubiquitous in horror, from “Gremlins” to that greatest instance of suburban anxiety, “Poltergeist.” For the Waller family of “Night Swim,” the pool means freedom, friends and a new lease on life. But pools can also be deadly (accidental drowning is the No. 1 killer of young children), so the pleasure comes with an edge, a fact the Waller family is about to learn.

Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell) is a former major league baseball player, a real slugger, whose multiple sclerosis has taken him out of the game. His wife, Eve (Kerry Condon), is eager to finally settle down, proving a lasting home for their two children: breezy teenage Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and Elliot (Gavin Warren), who struggles more than his sister to fit in with other kids. They find an old house outside the Twin Cities, fall in love and buy it, then commence cleaning out the gloppy, unused pool in the backyard. It becomes an oasis. And for a while, the pool seems to be helping Ray get better.

But this is a horror film, so the Wallers cannot have nice things and, unfortunately, neither can we. “Night Swim” is the feature debut of Bryce McGuire, produced by horror mavens James Wan and Jason Blum and based on McGuire’s 2014 short film. (A tidbit too odd to ignore: that short was filmed in musician Michelle Branch’s backyard pool.) The first half of the movie is remarkably effective, especially if you’ve ever had a pool, and especially if you’ve swam in it at night, though lots of “Night Swim” happens during the day. Jumps abound, and a scene with Izzy and her crush is especially terrifying.

But it goes downhill at some point. The inciting concept is so strong — the pool, to rephrase the meme, that makes you dead — that all additions after a certain point start to feel like overkill. The strongest horror concepts are spare and uncluttered: something is chasing you, something is thumping under the bed. They tap into an anguish that is fundamental and gut-level, a level way lower than your head.

The problem with “Night Swim” is that it’s trying to say a little too much, which isn’t a complete pleasure-killer, but can get distracting. It’s partly a movie about a primal fear of the water, and that’s where it’s most effective. (In the grand tradition of “Jaws,” I anticipate a few viewers being hesitant about dipping a toe in next summer.) But other horror tropes pop up here and there — the “Indian burial ground,” the sick kid — themes surfacing in an ungainly manner. It’s a movie about the dark side of ambition and the true nature of sacrifice; also family favoritism, and illness, and maybe hell? By the end I wasn’t really sure, and the general goofiness that emerges in the third act undercuts the emotional resonance it’s going for.

McGuire clearly has the chops and the imagination for horror, so I’m excited to see what he does next. And for a winter horror release — typically a great time to go to the movie theater, munch popcorn and get your pants scared off — it does the job. In fact, pool owners should be glad it’s a January release. You’ll have a few months to let the dread wear off. Maybe.

‘Night Swim’

Rated PG-13 for scariness and children in peril. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters.

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