Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the pool comes a film that bellyflops like a showoff pretending he knows how to high-dive. Night Swim features impressive photography above and below the shimmering surface of its haunted waters, but the numerous shadows and reflections cannot obscure the shallow storyline hiding beneath the repetitive swim scenes. The evil force continually spooks the characters but hesitates to do anything truly lethal until the third act because…well, because Night Swim was expanded from a short subject, but nobody came up with a plot big enough to fill the deep of the pool. Consequently, the film treads water for most of its runtime while drowning its audience in boredom.
The prologue sets the tone. Attempting to retrieve a beloved toy, a young girl falls into the pool, whereupon she is abducted by something in the water. The scene (like those that follow) is squeezed like a soaked sponge for every drop of tension the cinematography, editing, and soundtrack can yield, and yet it emerges as mildly spooky instead of absolutely terrifying. Years later, the Waller family moves in and, one by one, mom, brother, and sister have essentially the same experience depicted in the opening scene, the impact diminishing with each iteration.
Night Swim Review: Homicidal Healing
Intriguingly, father Ray (Wyatt Russell of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters) seems immune from the watery terrors. In fact, the ex-baseball player (whose career was cut short by a degenerative illness) seems to benefit from the physical therapy provided by swimming in the pool – to an extent that seems near-miraculous. Because of this, the rest of his family keep quiet instead of demanding to get the hell out of there before someone drowns (though, come to think of it, fear of drowning is nearly absent here; the emphasis is on creepy jump-scares).
“You’ll float too!””Things take a turn from homeopathic to homicidal during a backyard party. After swallowing some pool water, Ray becomes possessed and nearly drowns a neighbor’s kid. Understandably alarmed, his wife Eve (Kerry Condon) tracks down the house’s previous owner, who reveals that the underground spring feeding the pool has healing powers which require a human sacrifice in return.
This is an interesting idea, because somewhere lurking in the murky narrative is a hint that Ray has always put his career before family and therefore might be willing to sacrifice a child or two to regain his health; however, the point is moot because Ray is now possessed, so he is not making moral choices but rather being forced to act. (Remember how Kubrick’s The Shining depicted Jack Torrance in league with the Overlook Hotel instead of possessed by it? The makers of Night Swim should have paid attention.)
More important, this explanation raises more questions than it answers: If the pool demands human sacrifice, why kill the pet cat? For that matter, if the water itself is the problem, why is it filled with boogie monsters scaring the family instead of tempting them into making the required sacrifice? The film hints that the ghoulish apparitions may be previous victims, but the one we see clearly (the girl from the prologue) looks pretty normal and actually helps Eve out at a crucial moment, which makes you wonder two things: why do the other ghosts look and act scary, and why did the helpful ghost girl not warn Eve the very first time she jumped in the pool? (Hey, anybody remember how well Black Phone handled the idea of ghostly victims assisting the living? We do, and it makes this film look befuddled by comparison.)
The best answer to all of these questions is that Night Swim feels as if it was pieced together scene by scene without any underlying game plan to shape the course of events. Even the way the supernatural power manifests its maddeningly inconsistent: though it clearly resides in the water, it repeatedly appears in human form walking around the pool like a conventional ghost. Then suddenly in the final act we learn that the haunted water is not restricted to the pool: a glass of water magically slides off a counter, providing some broken shards for someone to fall on. Don’t bother asking why the entire family was not possessed the first time they drank from the tap, took a shower, or relaxed in the bathtub. The filmmakers do not know and do not care.
Consequently, we care even less. By the time the big finish arrives, with Eve deep-diving to rescue her son from drowning, even the impressively surreal sight of the mysteriously expanded pool (it’s bigger beneath the surface, as the TARDIS is bigger on the inside) is not enough to generate a convincing sense of dread.
Night Swim Review: Conclusion
Night Swim certainly looks creepy. Clever camera angles do a good job depicting something sinister though not quite seen beneath the rippling waters. The laudable attempt to generate supernatural scares with atmosphere and suggestion was probably enough to sustain the short subject but, at feature-length, Night Swim emerges as fatigued, water-logged, and wrinkled as a swimmer who submerged too long in deep water when he should have waded in the shallow end of the pool.
Night Swim (2024)
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Credits: Directed by Bryce McGuire. Screenplay by Bryce McGuire; screen story by Bryce McGuire & Rod Blackhurst, based on their short film. 98 mins. Rated PG-13. Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Atomic Monster, Witchcraft Motion Picture Company. U.S. Theatrical Release by Universal Pictures: January 12, 2024.
Cast: Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amelie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren, Jodi Long, Eddie Martinez, Elijah J. Roberts, Rahnuma Panthaky, Ben Sinclair.