Four years ago, Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn appeared in a wonderful little movie about an older couple, living out in the middle of nowhere, who build a makeshift teleportation machine in their garage. Outsiders discover their secret, violence breaks out, and the couple — deeply devoted to the end — step into the unknown, perhaps forever.
Okay, so it wasn't a movie — it was the Rian Johnson-directed music video for LCD Soundsystem's "Oh Baby." Shot over two days and edited at home on Johnson's iMac, the six-minute video is a stunning and poignant piece of storytelling. And it's one of the reasons I was excited for Night Sky, the new Amazon Prime Video drama from Holden Miller and Daniel C. Connolly. Spacek and J.K. Simmons star as Irene and Frank York, a long-married, small-town couple who discover a portal to another planet under their tool shed. Night Sky does, in fact, begin as a beautiful coming-of-old-age story — but it splinters into an overstuffed sci-fi thriller, and loses much of its humanity along the way.
Amazon Prime J. K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek in 'Night Sky'
Irene and Franklin are growing old together in fictional Farnsworth, Ill. He's a retired woodworker who still whittles little birds to pass the time; she's a former English teacher whose health is fading for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Irene likes to "go see the stars" — in other words, to travel through the mysterious underground portal and gaze at the beautifully desolate, rocky planet from the glassed-in viewing room she and Franklin have kept secret from the world. The stars have been the couple's escape, their respite from the pain of losing their son, Michael (Angus O'Brien), years ago. But lately, Franklin's worried about how much time Irene wants to spend in this other world, and how preoccupied she seems to be with learning — at long last — what lies on the other side of that thick wall of glass.
If only I could stop there. No such luck: One night, Irene is startled to find an ailing young man sprawled on the floor of the chamber. His name is Jude (Chai Hansen), and everything about him — including where he came from, and what he knows about the mysterious planet — is appropriately obscure. All Jude will tell Irene and Franklin is that he's on a mission to find someone. He neglects to mention that he's also being chased — by Stella (Julieta Zylberberg), an Argentinian llama farmer, and her teenage daughter, Toni (Rocío Hernández), who does not know that her mom is part of a [heavy sigh] secret society. Additional complicating factors include but are not limited to: Franklin and Irene's nosy neighbor, Byron (Adam Bartley), who just knows there's something up with that shed; Chandra (Beth Lacke), a nurse's aide and former student of Irene's who is also a kleptomaniac; a scary bald guy (Piotr Adamczyk) who crashes Stella and Toni's road trip to find Jude; and Hannah (Sonya Walger), a boozy B&B host who seems a little off.
Amazon Prime Chai Hansen in 'Night Sky'
When Night Sky leaves Irene and Franklin alone, it can be wonderfully moving. They're getting up in years, and Franklin knows that with Irene's health and his forgetfulness, it may be time to listen to Denise (Kiah McKirnan), their loving granddaughter, and sell the house. But Michael grew up there, and Irene has one last task on her to-do list. "This is our riddle to solve," she says of the portal. "Don't take that away from me." Spacek and Simmons are a sublime on-screen couple, with his get-off-my-lawn gruffness balancing beautifully against her determined equanimity. There is a lifetime of history between Irene and Franklin, and the actors make sure we feel every second of it.
Most of the time, though, Night Sky is busy being busy — unspooling new plot lines like so much toilet paper and doubling down on chase-thriller drama. Episode eight, the season finale, has approximately four endings, one for each unresolved story arc. If Simmons and Spacek return for season two, their characters seem destined to be back-burnered in favor of more globetrotting secret society hoo-hah. "You're always looking for an answer to life's great mystery," Franklin says to Irene in the drama's first and best episode. "I found mine, here in this house with you." Night Sky would have done better to stay there with them. B-
Night Sky premieres Friday, May 20, on Amazon Prime Video.
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