Winona is the Sole Reason to Watch the Aptly Titled GONE IN THE NIGHT

“We should take a little trip, just the two of us”

I can recall an interview Winona Ryder gave sometime in the late 2000s/early 2010s where she proudly stated that she was entering her “Baby Jane” years, the time in her career where she no longer had to carry the title of ingenue or starlet, but could instead refocus her talent on character parts in projects which suited her. It’s another turn in a remarkable career that has taken Ryder from one of Tim Burton’s muses, to sought after leading lady, to a credible producer of projects such as Little Women and Girl, Interrupted. Ryder’s recent choices, including her chilling supporting role in Black Swan, her poetic reteaming with Burton in Frankenweenie and her full circle turn in Stranger Things, show the actress embracing said years and doing some of the best work of her career. While her new film, Gone in the Night, threatens to break the streak the actress is on with its various questionable choices, it’s still a reminder of why film audiences are still lucky to have her.

Ryder stars as Kath, a 40-something horticulturist from Northern California who is traveling to a remote cabin rental in the woods with her younger boyfriend Max (John Gallagher Jr.). When the two arrive, they find another couple Greta (Brianne Tju) and Al (Owen Teague) there instead. After an awkward exchange, the two couples agree to share the cabin. All seems more or less fine until Kath wakes up the next day and finds Max has vanished. When she confronts Al, he tells her that Ben and Greta have run off together, causing a heartbroken Kath to leave back to the city. Unable to let things go, however, Kath contacts Nicholas (Dermot Mulrooney), the owner of the cabin in the hopes of finding out where Max went.

Gone in the Night wastes no time placing a spotlight on the different generations of characters within the film. Kath is in her early 50s and Max is in his late 30s, while Greta and Al are smack dab in their 20s. The script highlights the age differences in ways, both slight and on the nose. Kath is reluctant to play an edgy board game where players must reveal sexual details about themselves, while in a later scene she’s asked point blank if she’s someone’s mother while attempting to venture into a club in the hopes of finding information about Max. Although the topic of how well people from different age groups can exist together romantically isn’t the focus here, the film still offers something of an honest insight into those challenges. This is especially true in a dinner scene flashback where Ben (himself straddling the generational line) ends up feeling alienated as a result of being around Kath and her friends. Gone in the Night also brilliantly uses tension when it comes Greta and Al when they’re around Kath and Max, giving off a threatening, frightful nature many feel the younger generation possesses.

Had Gone in the Night been content enough to remain a commentary on cross-generational dating or even a haunting character piece featuring Kath forever searching for the man she lost, it would have had a chance of being a solid psychological indie thriller that focused more on the kinds of human fears many people face, such as aging and loneliness. But co-writer/director Eli Horowitz bogs down his film with so many plot twists, that the actual characters get left by the wayside. In an effort to keep the audience engaged, the film offers up numerous flashbacks that are meant to provide clues about what happened to Max, but only take away from watching Kath struggle with the questions she can’t answer. Horowitz eventually becomes so plot obsessed, that when the third act comes around, any previous commentary or glimpses into Kath as a person have vanished. What’s left is a totally left-field plot turn that feels anything but organic to the story as themes of family betrayal and science are forced into the narrative. The turns made are so extreme and illogical, that by the time the movie has ended, it’s a genuine struggle to remember why you chose to watch it in the first place.

Ryder is very clearly the star here, and because she is, she carries with her the same wide-eyed curiosity that also masks a deep vulnerability. It’s that combination that she brings to Gone in the Night, giving the film far more than it actually deserves. The way she projects her character’s torment through simple movements and deep, pensive looks is enough to make anyone wish this had been a moody character piece with a haunted Ryder at the center.

Even though the rest of the movie is saddled with characters we don’t need, nor have any interest in getting to know, the actors playing them do a great job giving them some form of life. Gallagher does an admirable job in establishing Max’s own struggle as he tries to exist between two worlds, while Teague enjoys a character shift in the latter half that really allows him to shine. Mulroney does solid work as always, while Tju becomes more and more intoxicating with every scene.

Sometimes all you need is a good Winona Ryder performance. That’s definitely been the case with some of the actress’ other projects over the last decade. If the ones I mentioned earlier were highlights that helped further her career, others were…less so. The Iceman was a misguided re-telling that should have worked, while The Letter left her stranded in its experimentalism, and Homefront was so routine, it’s a wonder anyone bothered to show up for it. But Ryder brought the acting goods in every one of those performances, whether it was a tormented professor or a hitman’s long-suffering wife. Like Gone in the Night, none of those titles were good films. Yet they each showed how committed and present of an actress Ryder is and how much she continues to give her characters and the audience every time she steps in front of the camera.

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