Survive the Night was directed by Matt Eskandari (12 Feet Deep, Trauma Center), written by Doug Wolfe, and stars Chad Michael Murray (Camp Cold Brook, House of Wax), Bruce Willis (Death Wish, Fortress), Shea Buckner (Animal Kingdom, The Row), Tyler Jon Olson (Marauders, Out of Death), Lydia Hull (Precious Cargo, Midnight in the Switchgrass), Riley Wolfe Rach, and Jessica Abrams (Someone Somewhere). It’s about a father who’s forced to protect his family from two criminal brothers that have taken the family hostage.
The Plot: Upon first glance, the ‘family-held-hostage’ premise doesn’t inspire much anticipation of originality but there Survive the Night has a few curveballs thrown in to negate familiarity. After backing down from a legal suit involving a patient, Rich (Murray) moves into his parents’ house with his wife Jan (Hull) and daughter Riley (Rach). Rich’s mother Rachel (Abrams) got him a job at a local clinic until he can get on his feet, further straining relations with his father, Frank (Willis). Meanwhile, brothers Jamie (Buckner) and Matty (Olson) have just committed some thefts and are on their way to Mexico.
It’s like no one remembers there’s more than one non-extradition country. During another robbery, Matty takes a round to the leg. Needing medical help, their only option is to force Rich to fix Matty. The brothers sneak into the house and hold the family hostage, accidentally killing one of them and tying up everyone but Rich. Between bouts of surgery, Rich and Frank have to fight back and, well, survive the night.
The Characters: Wolfe’s script handles the lead characters adeptly, quickly, and cleanly (or grimily for the brothers); but less so for the supporting players. Rich is shown to be a man who thinks he knows his limits. Not long ago a patient died under his care and the family sued him and he backed down. Despite not regretting his forfeit, he laments the effect it had on his family and wants desperately to make it right. The rift that’s been created between him and Jan is palpable. Jan clearly wants things to go back to normal but Rich’s attitude has changed to the point where she’s no longer sure about Rich’s true state. Frank is a different story.
He’s upset with what he sees as cowardice, knowing that he taught his son to fight; and he takes every chance to tell him so. Like Jan, he still loves him, but resents his life choices. Matty and Jamie are similar to Rich in that they’ll do whatever it takes for each other but Matty has to manage Jamie’s violent tendencies, acting like a brother and a father. It’s interesting to see what’s basically two family members in one person. Jamie is more unhinged but just as loyal. While neither of the brothers are likeable, they are very understandable. I liked them a lot despite their actions.
The Thrills: Eskandari manages to keep Survive the Night taut, rarely slipping into formulaic thriller conceits. Survive the Night does what all well contained thrillers do by giving a mostly understandable layout of the house and several shots of the quiet surroundings, excellently setting the stage and the mood by tightening the insides and expanding the outsides. Jamie’s impulsiveness adds even more edge to the movie, since he killed three civilians, one of them part of Rich’s family; Wolfe and Eskandari essentially remove all bets. Everyone is eligible for death’s embrace here, and Matty knows it and conveys the severity of Jamie’s violent behaviour to Rich. Not a single character makes it through the runtime unscathed.
There are some stumbles in tension as the power dynamics shift multiple times in mere minutes, going overboard with the uncertainty when it was already present; and towards the end, some of the characters make out-of-character decisions. Flaws may come up in the last act because of the script but the first 70 minutes are white-knuckled perfection.
The Technics: Willis’s movies are rarely this low budget ($3.5 mil according to IMDb) but Survive the Night looks the polar opposite of low-budget. Eskandari has an eye for setups and shots and makes full use of a quiet house in the middle of nowhere with ease by use of several wide shots that immaculately illustrate just how out-of-luck everyone in the movie is. Forests look intimidating via foggy weather and the majority of the movie has touches of grey that add to the dour tone.
What strikes Survive the Night down a notch is some of the dialogue from the brothers. Jamie and Matty do speak some really good lines but the repetition of their motivations (a beach house in Mexico) and Matty’s constant reminder to Jamie not to kill any more of the family becomes laughable at times. It’s hard to forget the plan, but the movie really wants to hammer it home.
People who viewed Matt Eskandari’s following film ‘Hard Kill’ will’ve gotten the wrong impression of the man’s talent for creating solid drama and great thrills. Familiarity is still present but the pacing, unpredictability, characters, and unanimously strong performances (especially Buckner and Willis) do more than enough to keep eyes on the screen during Survive the Night.
Survive the Night is available on DVD and Digital from Lionsgate.