IT COMES AT NIGHT
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner, David Pendleton
MPAA Rating: (for violence, disturbing images, and language)
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 6/9/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 8, 2017
Something has happened to the world in It Comes at Night. Maybe something only has happened to the United States or, perhaps, this part of the country. We don't know for certain, because the people living through it aren't sure, either. If they do know, they have stopped talking about it. What would be the point? As far as they know, there's nothing they could do. There's no one they could communicate with for help. There's no place else to go.
They are helpless. Their situation is hopeless, save for the hope that they might survive this outbreak long enough for something to change or, at least, to die at a ripe, old age of natural causes. Either outcome seems unlikely.
This is a bleak film about a family living in the aftermath of what appears to be the end of the world. The screenplay by director Trey Edward Shults (his sophomore feature) doesn't offer specific details about the cause of this devastation. There's some kind of disease or infection that has spread across part or all of the globe. The family either doesn't know or doesn't talk about it, if any of them do know. What they know is the result of catching this virus or coming into contact with this bacteria.
That's the first thing we learn from the film, too, as Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—all of them wearing gas masks—watch Sarah's father (played by David Pendleton) succumb to this plague. His breathing is labored. Sores like welts spread across his body. Sections of skin have either deteriorated or been scratched away. Sarah calmly tells her father that he can "let go"—slip away from his life of pain and suffering. Instead, Paul has to end his father-in-law's misery in an unmarked grave in the woods on the outskirts of their three-story, cabin-style home. Feeling the need to be there for his beloved grandfather's final moments, Travis accompanies him.
This is our introduction to the film's world, these characters, and this scenario. Shults doesn't let up on any of it—by way of the mood, in terms of theme, or in the film's purpose. It's entirely about consequences, from the opening sequence to the silent family dinner after the grandfather's body has been burned and buried to the nightmares that Travis has of grandfather vomiting some black goo. Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels present those dreams in an increasingly wider aspect ratio, as if Travis is slowly being crushed by the world around him. The film finds its widest frame when reality itself becomes more dreadful than any nightmare.
The next change to the family's established routine comes in the form of an intruder. Paul catches him, bounds him, and brings him out to the woods in the same wheelbarrow that just carried his father-in-law to his grave. After a day alone being tied to a tree, the stranger says that his name is Will (Christopher Abbott), that no one else is with him, and that he was only looking for food and water for his wife and son. Paul believes him to the extent that he'll believe anybody other than his family and, with some encouragement from Sarah and Travis, makes Will an offer: The stranger and his family, who have some livestock, can live with them for the time being, and the two families will share their resources.
The new family—Will's wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner)—gets along fine. Chores are divided and done without complaint. There are actual smiles on faces. Travis, who has a habit of listening in on his parents talks about terrible matters in hushed tones, finds himself in the attic, laughing along with a different father and mother who still seem optimistic about life.
Those nightmares, which occasionally blend into some occurrence in the real world, suggest some external force waiting in the woods or, perhaps, hiding somewhere in the house. With the appearance of Will, we've seen that the hints have been accurate before, and Paul's suspicions of Will haven't lessened since the stranger's arrival, especially after Will questioned Paul's decision to kill a man who ambushed them on their way to Will's family.
Shults' use of horror conventions here (long shots moving down lengthy hallways, the moments of a startling image appearing out of nowhere, and some gore) isn't so much about the build-up to a scare or the temporary shock. That's part of it, of course, but the point isn't the scare or the shock. It's another tool of establishing tone—a general air of unease about the environment, which holds an unseen threat, and the characters, whom we know are capable of pretty much anything in the name of their own survival and the survival of their loved ones.
In other words, this isn't a traditional horror film, even if it behaves as one. Shults isn't toying with us, though. He's creating a point of view, too. It's one of constant suspicion, discomfort, and fear, not only of the unknown but also of the likely—as in the likelihood that the structure of this makeshift extended family cannot stand the weight of doubt.
This may be a film about the end of the world, but with its constricted focus on these specific characters, It Comes at Night tracks something akin to a domestic apocalypse. It does so with steadfast and frightening resolve, offering a nihilistic view of human nature that is filled with remorse and regret.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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