Nothing Lurks Beneath the Surface of 'Night Swim'

Directed by Bryce McGuire

Starring Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amélie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Jan 4, 2024

Water can be scary. Cinema and literature, and even music, have seen to that. But when it comes to most pools, there is absolutely nothing lurking beneath the surface — an apt description of Night Swim.

Written and directed by Bryce McGuire in his feature directorial debut, and produced by James Wan and Jason Blum, Night Swim tells the story of the Waller family, who move into a new house with a natural spring pool in the backyard, only to realize that the water harbours some disturbing desires.

From this relatively simple — albeit high concept — premise, McGuire attempts to paint a portrait of family kinship and dysfunction, love and tragedy, one that resembles the familial melodrama of Hereditary or The Amityville Horror.

Wyatt Russell stars as Ray Waller, a baseball player forced into early retirement due to multiple sclerosis. His wife, Eve (Kerry Condon), works in admin at the local high school and aids Ray in his daily physiotherapy, making the home more accessible as he battles the illness. Their doctor recommends water therapy as a low-impact exercise for Ray, so they buy a new house with a pool.

Meanwhile, their children, Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and Elliot (Gavin Warren), are going through the traditional pains of young adulthood, including budding relationships and trying to fit in. Elliot, in particular, is struggling with living in the shadow of his father's athletic expectations; he wants to join the team, but he's smaller than the other boys in his class, which causes him doubt and anxiety.

These problems pale in comparison to the horror that McGuire attempts to generate from the mysterious pool, and ultimately, the needs of most of these characters are under explored and rendered irrelevant by film's end. Although McGuire attempts to tackle myriad topics — healthcare, accessibility, addiction, parental sacrifice and responsibility, love, familial relations, baseball — he focuses more on getting his plot across, negating any meaningful exploration of any of these topics. And yet, the film's very premise — born from a 2014 short film by McGuire and Rod Blackhurst — is simply too thin to support its 98-minute runtime, quickly becoming an exercise in futility. It's the cinematic equivalent of tethered swimming.

The film itself is thoroughly indebted to precursors such as Poltergeist, Jaws, The Shining, the new IT films and, surprisingly, Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly Solaris. Unfortunately, these cinematic references reveal McGuire's own inadequacies as a writer and as a director, with Night Swim bearing some of the most obvious growing pains of a first-time filmmaker: he tries to tackle too much, and yet he doesn't have enough finesse to bring it all together. Because McGuire's influences are firmly etched on his sleeve (and on every frame in the film), this results in a film whose images and plot feel rehashed and derivative.

The cast does what they can with the undercooked material, and while most of the performances — particularly Condon's — are noteworthy, Russell feels miscast and under-utilized. Ray's one-track motivation grows thin the moment the film's Big Truth is realized, and as an actor, he's just a little bit too "chill," too warm and welcoming, for us to ever take his menace seriously. 

The filmmaking itself is clinical and very efficient, repeating images and stylistic choices not for the sake of story, but clearly because it "looks cool." The most egregious is the repeated bird's-eye shot of the pool, which we get more than a half dozen times. Once is enough: it's a pool, people swim through it, we get it.

The film's saving grace are the few moments where something dark and unsettling finally begins to emerge from the bubbling depths. Unfortunately, McGuire is unable to sustain the dread, and these moments get washed away in a pool jet of mediocrity. When we are presented with the truth about the pool, it becomes one of the most interesting parts of the whole film; and yet, much like the family dynamics at the centre of the film, the lore of the water is merely brushed upon in favour of grotesqueries that lead nowhere and fail to frighten.

The biggest culprit here is what can only be described as the "Blumhouse Effect," which has turned the once-discerning independent studio into a factory that churns out horror by numbers. Couple that with the participation of Wan and Atomic Monster, and you have the perfect storm of monotony: The Conjuring universe (including The Nun), Insidious, The Black Phone, M3GAN, Malignant — all of these films have their respective merits, but, ultimately, their frights look, sound and feel the same. 

Save for a few outliers, the quality in Blumhouse-related horror projects has undoubtedly dipped, and Night Swim is a perfect example of this decline. It's just not that scary. It's not original, and frankly, it's not even entertaining. In fact, it's as generic and mediocre as modern horror gets. Night Swim is just there — bland, lukewarm and stagnant.
(Universal Pictures)

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