Producers: Raphael Margules, J.D. Lifshitz, Shaun Sanghani and Russ Posternak   Director: Eli Horowitz Screenplay: Eli Horowitz and Matthew Derby   Cast: Winona Ryder, Dermot Mulroney, John Gallagher, Jr., Owen Teague and Brianne Tju   Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

Grade: C

Eli Horowitz’s debut film was originally called “The Cow,” which would have placed it in the company of other recent pictures named simply for animals (“Pig,” “Dog,” “Wolf”) but would have caused confusion with Andrea Arnold’s recent documentary “Cow,” as well as perplexity among viewers, who wouldn’t know the meaning of the title until it was explained in the movie’s last act.  By contract “Gone in the Night” is all too clear from nearly the start.

Kath (Winona Ryder) and Max (John Gallagher, Jr.) have been together for a long while, though they’re quite dissimilar—she’s practical and traditional, he’s kind of squirrely.  When he goes out for a bottle of wine one night and doesn’t return for two hours, ruining their evening with friends, it seems they might finally break up.  But he surprises her by renting a cabin in the remote woods for the weekend, and the idyll could save their relationship.

When the two arrive at the place, they find that it’s already occupied by a young couple, Al (Owen Teague) and Greta (Brianne Tju).  Al’s hostile, but gregarious Greta offers to share the place, and the four spend the night playing a board game called Pillow Talk, which can get pretty nasty, much to Kath’s annoyance.  She’s further rattled when she awakens the following morning and Al tells her that Max and Greta have run off together.

Kath goes back to the city, where she runs a flower shop, but she doesn’t give up on tracking Max down, and seeks information on Al and Greta from Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney), the scruffy recluse who owns the cabin.  The two bond over the search, and she learns that he’s a former biotech mogul who gave up a big payoff when his firm was sold, and is suffering from a genetic wasting disease.

To say much more would ruin the picture for anyone intrigued by the premise and interested in seeing how it plays out.  Suffice it to say that the present action is punctuated by flashbacks that depict what’s been going on since the night with which the movie began, until a twist in the last act explains everything, including the original title. 

There have been intimations that the key to the story is a dangerous cult, but one has to be cautious in being too quick to write off a piece that relies on misdirection for its effect.  Unfortunately, when the film finally delivers its big revelation about why Max disappeared, it turns out to be a rather silly pseudo-scientific one. 

That’s not to say that “Gone in the Night” doesn’t offer a degree of creepiness along the way to an ending that says something about the fear of aging and death.  And it adds a touch of sly humor to the closing confrontation.

It also benefits from the efforts of a good ensemble.  Ryder makes Kath a woman with serious vulnerabilities but also a streak of determination, and Gallagher (recently the concerned husband of “Abandoned”) captures Max’s flightiness, while Teague and Greta mirror them as an equally mismatched couple, with him rough and angry and her giddily unfettered, but with a sinister edge.  Mulroney’s Nicholas, meanwhile, is precisely the sort of gruffly genial fellow who appears fated to be a hero, but may instead be hiding something.

The technical team do reasonably strong work as well, with Susannah Honey’s simple production design complemented by David Bolen’s stark, color-drained cinematography; and Arndt-Wulf Peemöller’s editing keeps matters fairly clear despite all the back-and-forth jumping.  David Baldwin’s spare score is moodily efficient when that’s called for.

There’s some ingenuity and craft behind “Gone in the Night,” but in the end it amounts to less than promised.