June 9, 2017
From A24, the studio that brought you the tragicomedy The Lobster and the delightfully morbid Swiss Army Man, comes psychological mystery It Comes At Night, helmed by director Trey Edward Shults (Krishna). Though it starts with all the hallmarks of a horror film, It Comes at Night quickly sheds its horror skin to reveal a rumination on the price we pay to keep our family safe. In only his second feature film, Shults’ direction demonstrates incredible skill and his cast impeccably inserts humanity into the worst situation imaginable. However, the narrative at its core sparks more questions than answers, causing more frustration than fascination. This is not the horror film the marketing promises, but the terror is real and it comes from within.
In the wake of an unknown plague, 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) lives in a remote cabin hidden in the woods with his parents, Paul and Sarah (Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo), and grandfather, Bud (David Pendleton). Shortly after Bud succumbs to the unknown sickness, a frantic couple, Will and Kim (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough), come to the cabin with their young son in search of food and shelter, offering their services and livestock in trade. At first, both families blend nicely, finding small joys in their isolated existence. But in a world where one mistake could spell death for their loved ones, they have to decide how far are they’re willing to go to protect them? And at what cost.
When it comes to apocalyptic stories, a question of morality is by no means unique, but the technique used to tell the tale separates the average from the exceptional. Gratefully, Shults demonstrates the latter to cultivate terror from interpersonal situations through camerawork and set design. In many ways, the camera acts as an additional character in the film, snaking its way through the corridors of the house, floating through the forest, or generally moving against the audience. In one particular scene, Paul ties up Will in order to get information from him during their initial meeting. Rather than utilizing quick cuts to follow the dialogue, the camera either lingers just on Paul or just on Will, forcing the audience to focus on either the speaker or the listener, but never as you’d expect. It’s a bold directorial choice that rattles the audience, ratcheting the anxiety already present. In another scene, Travis, suffering from insomnia, walks the halls like a ghost while everyone sleeps, an orb of light providing visibility as far as his fingertips and no further. Though the cabin is, by and large, a safe space, forgoing the usual ambient lighting imbues the house with as much danger and uncertainty as the rest of the world. Even in daylight, Shults inserts the specter of death through seemingly innocent transitions like causing the cabin to appear as though it’s springing forth from a grave. These camera tricks create a sense of something waiting in the air, something waiting to pounce or strike. These and other subtle touches maintain a high level of tension even when no threat seems apparent.
In the world of Shults’ creation, what you see isn’t always real and what’s real may not be seen. In this way, the narrative is a touch confusing. The looming nature of disease keeps Paul, Sarah, and Travis alert to threats, forcing Paul to make decisions over life-and-death. This seems the central tension between the two families, even when things are going well. Is everyone who they say they are? If not, are they still trustworthy? This tension adds weight and dimension to every decision, beautifully handled in particular by Edgerton, as each decision seems both carefully considered and pragmatically applied in this post-apocalypse world. In this regard, Paul seems the reasonable center of the story as the main protagonist; however, the official synopsis puts Travis as the focal point, a revelation which morphs the confusion caused by the abrupt end of It Comes At Night into disorienting bewilderment. While Travis’s role in the film frequently serves as the catalyst for action – a burden Harrison Jr. manages with exceptional proficiency – his journey is far less clear than Paul’s. When we follow Paul, we see the impact of corporeal actions; whereas with Travis, the psychological trauma comes to play. In truth, if It Comes At Night is intended as a parable of morality in a gray world, then Paul’s choices are the ones to be examined.
It Comes At Night possesses all the markers of a straight contagion-focused horror film, yet its execution subverts these expectations to make the terror far more insular. This is largely It Comes At Night’s greatest success and its greatest weakness, resulting in a visually exquisite film whose downfall comes from too lofty an aspiration. Shults demonstrates incredible talent for storytelling by increasing tension through little movements of the camera and creating a world of characters that the audience invests in heartily. However, this deft touch to world-creation doesn’t stave off the frequent discombobulation of the central narrative, distracting from a potentially bone-chilling experience.
Star rating: 3 out of 5.