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Night Swim review: a forgettable dip in the shallow end

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Amélie Hoeferle swims in a pool in Night Swim.

“A talented cast and handful of effective set pieces aren’t enough to save Night Swim from emerging as a decidedly mediocre horror effort.”

Pros

  • A number of tense, terrifying sequences throughout
  • Several well-executed moments of self-aware humor

Cons

  • A tonally uneven climax that totally misses the mark
  • A largely wasted cast of talented performers
  • An overlong, unnecessarily bloated screenplay

A PG-13 horror film indebted to genre classics like Pet Sematary, Jaws, and seemingly everything in-between, Night Swim just doesn’t know what it wants to be. Bryce McGuire’s feature directorial debut, which is based on his 2014 short film of the same name, is a supernatural horror romp that seems torn between its campier impulses and its Stephen King-sized aspirations. It’s a film that frequently acknowledges how silly it is, only to then demand at points that audiences take it more seriously than it deserves. But like a pool that keeps turning green, Night Swim can’t hide the layer of grime stuck to its very foundation.

Grime and filth aren’t bad things in the horror genre, though, and Night Swim is at its best whenever it embraces its own trashiness. Doomed by its PG-13 rating to never get quite as brutal as its story demands, the film still manages to make its central, haunted swimming pool feel like a cursed cemetery that you should avoid at all costs. Thanks to its immensely likable cast, Night Swim isn’t the kind of creative misfire that’ll make you leave the theater feeling angry or cheated, either. It is, in fact, the kind of occasionally scary, but forgettable horror exercise suggested by its early January release date.

The Waller family crowds around the edge of a pool in Night Swim.
Anne Marie Fox / Universal Pictures

After opening with an appropriately spooky prologue involving the mysterious drowning of a young girl, Night Swim picks up 30 years later with Ray Waller (Monarch: Legacy of Monsters‘ Wyatt Russell), a former baseball player whose career was derailed early by his sudden multiple sclerosis diagnosis. When Night Swim begins, Ray, his wife, Eve (The Banshees of Inisherin star Kerry Condon), and his kids, Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and Elliot (Gavin Warren), are in the midst of looking for a new house. Ray, desperate to hold onto whatever sense of normalcy he can, persuades Eve to move their family into a picture-perfect suburban house with the kind of backyard pool he’d always dreamed of having as a kid, rather than a townhome more suited to his physical needs.

It isn’t long after they’ve moved into their new home, however, that the Wallers begin to realize, one by one, that their seemingly perfect pool isn’t everything it seems to be. Eve, Elliot, and Izzy each have their own traumatic experiences in the haunted pool, while Ray’s physical health begins to improve the more time he spends in it. Soon enough, the odds of him rebuilding his baseball career don’t seem so slim, but in a classic Faustian twist, his desire to succeed blinds him to the cost that his magical pool demands. It’s all as absurd as it sounds, and when McGuire ends one of Ray’s medical consultations with a close-up of him smirkingly remarking that he and his family “have a pool now,” it seems like Night Swim knows it.

The film’s second act is littered with moments of tongue-in-cheek humor that all land, including a memorable one-scene appearance from High Maintenance’s Ben Sinclair as a pool repair guy who tends to lose himself in philosophical monologues about man’s evolutionary relationship to water. It’s a further credit to how well McGuire intermittently rides the line between horror and comedy that Night Swim’s instances of self-aware ribbing never dilute its sense of danger. The thriller, for all of its many shortcomings, features a few sequences in its ghostly pool that range from disturbing to deranged and terrifying.

The Waller family stands in a drained pool in Night Swim.
Anne Marie Fox / Universal Pictures

Night Swim’s pool-set hauntings and jump scares reveal its potential as a straightforward, scarily effective horror comedy, and McGuire fills them with simple, but inspired technical flourishes. Whether it be the POV shots that mimic a character’s infrequent view of her pool’s surrounding sides as she swims across it or the moments when he decides to cut inside the pool’s drains, the director makes good use of Night Swim’s central space and fills both it and the environment around it with a sense of unseen menace. Unfortunately, McGuire also clogs the film with unnecessary lore dumps and melodramatic subplots that slow and weigh the film down.

The thriller spends so much time exploring Ray’s bitterness and nostalgic view of his once-promising past that the character is not only rendered one-dimensional ,but the other members of his family also aren’t developed enough to warrant the amount of emotional investment that its third act expects. As charming and charismatic as Russell, Condon, Hoeferle, and Warren all are, they’re left to flounder in a film that doesn’t seem interested in letting them simply have fun on-screen and lean into its cheesiest or scariest aspects. Together, Condon and Russell, in particular, earn a lot of goodwill with viewers, but Night Swim doesn’t ultimately know what to do with it.

Wyatt Russell stands next to Kerry Condon in Night Swim.
Universal Pictures

In its reality-bending final act, the film loses grip of its tone — relying on heavy-handed emotional moments that feel completely out of place in a thriller about a haunted suburban swimming pool. Its climax lands with the same loud, cringey grace as a belly flop, and the film sends itself out on a decidedly low note. That doesn’t mean Night Swim is completely without its merits, but it does fall far short of its own ludicrous potential. It’s a fine way to spend a couple hours at a theater this January, so long as you understand that it’s destined to do nothing other than sink deeper and deeper into the recesses of your memory the further into this year that we get.

Night Swim is now playing in theaters.

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