For a psychological thriller to truly work, it needs to lean into the ambiguous, and create a palpable sense of paranoia that envelops the audience as much as the characters onscreen. Director Michael Pearce’s debut film “Beast” is one of the best recent examples of the genre, featuring a breakout performance from Jessie Buckley as an alienated young woman who becomes increasingly detached as she discovers the man she’s dating has been accused of a string of murders. It’s a film that never lays its cards out too clearly, not revealing its hand until a final scene that recontextualizes the entire drama. It’s deeply gripping, and all the more impressive as a first feature — eventually bagging Pearce the BAFTA for Best British Debut and pegging him as a filmmaker to watch.
As is the case with many British filmmakers after their first brush with success, Pearce has gone across the pond with his sophomore feature “Encounter,” a science fiction-inflected tale that shares more than a little DNA with his debut. This is another psychological thriller as seen through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, a film that’s at its best when keeping its lips sealed about which version of events can be trusted. It never stops being thrilling, but if it is considerably less effective than Pearce’s debut, then it’s because the film stops leaning into the ambiguity of events halfway through, conclusively telling us what we should believe. It’s a solidly entertaining movie, but one that frustratingly hints at something better, more liable to get under the skin and stay there, instead of one that keeps revealing its secrets through exposition.