Night Swim review: The water's not fine

Wyatt Russell in Night Swim
Wyatt Russell in Night Swim

The double-edged sword of horror films like Night Swim is that the audience has a version of the film in their head even before the projector lights up and the movie starts. If you’ve seen a trailer for Night Swim, you have a very clear idea of what this movie is, and that means two things for first-time director Bryce McGuire. First, it means that there are clear expectations for the kind of film he’s expected to make, and clear rhythms he’s expected to play with. Second, it means that if he’s clever and gutsy enough, he can manipulate those expectations and rhythms to great effect, playing with his audience in ways both creepy and amusing.

The good news is that McGuire has found a way to surpass audience expectations within the framework of his horror hook: A haunted swimming pool that preys on a family. No matter what you think you know about Night Swim going in, McGuire manages to manipulate your preconceived notions and have a little fun with them. That makes for an engaging watch, even when the film is bogged down by the pressures and patterns of its chosen horror formula.

It’s also helpful that McGuire has an engaging and endearing cast to carry his narrative forward. It all begins with Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell) campaigning to move his family into a new home with a dilapidated swimming pool out back, hoping that a little water therapy will be the thing he needs to get back on the baseball diamond after a period of illness. His wife Eve (Kerry Condon) is a little hesitant, but before long the entire Waller family, including teenage daughter Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and awkward youngest child Elliot (Gavin Warren) are diving headlong into their new backyard water park. The pool works wonders for the family’s energy, and Ray seems to actually be getting better thanks to his daily swims. But as we all know, something is up with this particular pool, something that seems to come out at night, when the underwater lights flicker and strange shapes, sounds, and forces start to plague the Waller family.

The first task of any horror film working from this kind of premise is making the idea of a haunted pool in an ordinary single-family backyard into a genuinely terrifying prospect. McGuire rises to the challenge, expanding the fright factor from his original short film into something worthy of feature-length exploration. The early pool hauntings are satisfyingly eerie, solidly paced exercises in winding up and then releasing tension, while the script, also by McGuire, uses these moments to pepper in just enough detail to build out a real sense of lore for the film. By the time we get into what’s really going on, and what the Waller family is facing, the audience is thoroughly rattled by that water-filled rectangle in the backyard.

But McGuire is after more than just a disturbing dip into spooky waters. Night Swim is, for all its clever conceptualizing, also a genuinely ambitious character drama, centered largely on Ray Waller’s efforts to simultaneously be a good father and keep pursuing his own personal dream of baseball glory. Ray’s determination, the dark forces at work in the family, and how his family responds all make for an engrossing stew of emotions, particularly when the film makes space for the always-magnetic Condon to do some of Night Swim’s heaviest lifting. When the film is simply playing with the creepy pool sequences, or when it’s letting the Waller family’s struggles take center stage, it works quite well.

But as Night Swim rounds third and makes the turn for home, it starts to struggle to keep its head above the water. The creepy moments are still there, and the film’s surprisingly adept wit keeps peppering in laughs amid the scares, but everything also starts to feel rushed. The Waller family has barely scratched the surface of what’s really going on before they’re thrust deep into a final conflict to settle the issue once and for all (at least, that is, until a sequel comes bubbling up). There’s an abruptness that compresses and flattens out everything, from the horror of a pool that seems to bubble up and fill every space in the family’s life to the deeply human struggles of parents just trying to get through another crisis. It’s enough to wring a lot of the emotional heft out of what could have been a truly affecting conclusion, and it’s disappointing to see the film lose steam so quickly.

But even this last-minute lag can’t keep Night Swim down. Despite some choppy waters in the back half, this is a fun, funny, often genuinely unnerving horror movie experience, one that might make you think twice about that first swim of the year when summer rolls around.

Night Swim opens in theaters January 5