Written and Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"We never go out at night..."
If the majority of apocalyptic fiction is correct, then I can only hope to never live to see the end times. I can safely say I lack the fortitude to survive such a dog-eat-dog landscape, and I would totally be that person in a horror movie who died because they trusted someone they shouldnít have. That, of course, is the overarching theme of this particular strain of gloom-and-doom fiction: no matter what catastrophic event befalls us, we wonít be prepared, nor will it be the ultimate cause of our destruction. Rather, weíll destroy ourselves out of paranoia and mistrustóIíve seen a Romero movie, youíve seen a Romero movie, and the folks behind The Walking Dead damn sure have seen a Romero movie. So, too, I suspect, has Trey Edward Shults, whose It Comes at Night is the latest film to reprise this well-worn theme and hammer home the fact that we are all so very fucked.
Our fragile mortality is thrusted in our face immediately, as a family is forced to exile their terminally ill grandfather from their home. A father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), and his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) take the poor man out back and literally put him down with a gunshot to the head before unceremoniously dumping his body in a ditch and lighting it on fire. Welcome to the bleak world of It Comes at Night, where the cryptic gas masks worn by survivors hint at some kind of global pandemic thatís caused this family to hole up in a cabin in the woods.
Paul sets a tough but fair standard that forces the family to exercise extreme caution, especially when it comes to wandering outside and dealing with strangers. The latter is put to the test when Will (Christopher Abbott), a desperate man in search of water for his own family breaks into the house. After holding the intruder at gunpoint, Paul is satisfied enough with the manís story to invite both him and his family to shack up, citing the benefits of shared resources and stronger protection against outsiders. This, of course, plants the seeds of their own destruction. After an amiable montageówhich represents the only three or four minutes this thing isnít relentlessly grimóreality begins to set in, as horrors from within and without threaten to tear the peaceful existence apart.
It should be noted that those outside terrors stay at a remove for much of the film, as Shults is content to let it lurk as a sort of laconic force. The characters make references to the time ďbefore this shit,Ē and itís pretty clear itís wreaked sizeable havoc on the population at large. Brief, gory glimpses indicate itís some kind of airborne virus that results in internal bleeding and nasty skin boils, though itís easy to forget itís even a factor for long stretches of the movie. Between the title and the charactersí heightened fear about nightfall, it seems to be especially deadly once the sun goes down. Whatever this virus is, itís the logical extreme of Romeroís zombies: itís toppled society, but itís not what will undo these characters specifically.
No, theyíll do that themselves in a turn of events that feels fated not only because this tale is so familiar, but also because itís guided by fatalistic impulses. Consider an early scene where Travis examines a painting: Shultsís camera gazes along with him, slowly panning down to reveal a mound of corpses. Forget foreshadowingóthis is more like showing a guillotine hanging over everyoneís head thatís bound to fall at any given minute. The effect is suffocating: while Shults obviously plays up the claustrophobia of the filmís tight, confined spaces, the filmís ominous mood is even more stifling. It results in a muted, unassuming sort of horror crafted out of slow tracking shots, elliptical nightmare sequences, and low, natural lighting For much of its runtime, It Comes At Night barely rises above a whisper as it hums along, promptly and efficiently shuttling these characters to their doom.
This is one of those oppressively quiet films that unnerves with insinuation and an almost predatory sense of its audienceís expectations. Like Paul and his family, viewers are trained to naturally distrust Willís clan and spend much of the film waiting for that shoe to drop. Hints confirming their impending treacheryólike tiny discrepancies in their storyóare frustratingly sparse and ambiguous, and Shults almost playfully withholds whatever secrets or intentions they may (or may not) hoard. Withholding is an obvious theme here, as Shults preys on obvious fears of the unknown to heighten the paranoia. We donít know what, exactly, is lurking outside, nor can we be sure about these strangers. The only certainty is that someoneóor, more likely, everyoneówonít survive the imminent ordeal towards which the film patiently rumbles.
When it arrives, itís suitably miserable because Shults has so positioned the characters so delicately. A lesser filmmaker would paint the dynamics here in broad terms, but Shults carries over the filmís understated nature to the performances. Itís easy to imagine the loud, more obvious version of this same story (mostly because itís been done so many times), complete with high-strung outbursts and constant shouting matches. It Comes at Night is more restrained, though, as Edgerton is tough but not naturally so. He admits to having been a History teacher before the disaster, while Will bounced around from construction and mechanic jobs. These arenít hard-ass survivalists but rather common men just looking out for their families, a sentiment they share aloud with each other. Despite their obvious misgivings, their existence is amiable, and the two build a sort of rugged, functional rapport.
Both have children that exist to both heighten the stakes and deepen the impending tragedy. Travis is a 17-year-old whose wet dreams and awkward interactions with Willís wife (Riley Keough) reveal him to be a normal teenager, albeit one thatís stuck in the apocalypse. In many ways, It Comes at Night seems to be framed around his experience: heís the one thatís shaken by his grandfatherís death and the subsequent disappearance of a family dog, and his nightmares generate even more tension. A secluded spot in the attic serve as his sanctuary, where he listens in on everyone elseís conversations, which are innocuousóuntil they arenít, anyway. Heís a good kid subjected to a horrifying existence he certainly doesnít deserve. Nor does Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), his 5-year-old counterpart who innocently plays with dinosaur toys and whose presence grows especially upsetting once paranoia begins to grip the household.
A nauseating sense of dread gnaws away as the climax ramps up, leading you to wonder if Shults will go exactly where you expect him too. He does and with little purpose or insight beyond exploiting the shock of it all, as whatever sense of misdirection he weaves through the charactersí interactions only emphasizewell-worn tired insistence that mankind is doomed to destroy themselves, be it via their paranoia or their in-fighting. Donít get me wrong: I respect something this confrontational and bleak being dropped onto unsuspecting multiplex audiences right in the middle of blockbuster season, but it does so with a thudding familiarity. At a certain point, it becomes exhausting (and perhaps numbing?) to be subjected to such despair, even if this film does capture something of the current American zeitgeist in its nastiness and frankness about the doomed endeavors of squabbling humans.
As such, itís a film I appreciate more than anything, though itís fair to say itís a film that isnít (and shouldnít be) enjoyed. It Comes at Night is a dreary, alienating piece of work thatís been meticulously crafted to crawl under your skin and right into the pit of your stomach. Obviously, your mileage is going to vary depending on how much you want to be bummed the fuck out; personally, Iím kind of over this apocalyptic misery porn, so my gut reaction is to consider this one well done but something I canít imagine enduring again in the future.
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