I went to see Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature, It Comes At Night on a Monday evening. When the credit’s rolled in the movie theater, as the lights came on, a man’s voice cried out: “What the hell was that?…. What…the…f*** was that!?”. His wife agreed. I followed them out of the theater, and heard the man say “I mean… what came at night!?” It was amusing, and doesn’t sound like a great endorsement of the film, but I think it really boils down to a case of some crafty marketing.
It Comes At Night is really not a horror movie. That’s not to say it isn’t scary. It horrified and disturbed me. But it’s not a horror movie, as the trailer and marketing materials may have suggested. It’s a film about fatherhood, survival instincts and the desire to protect one’s family at any cost. It’s asks us to watch horrible things happen, and wonder if we’d be able to do the same if we were in that position. Or if we even ought to do the same.
The film stars Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo as Paul and Sarah, a married couple, surviving alone in a post apocalyptic world, ravaged by some kind of airborne illness. However, the narrative often seems to center on their son Travis, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. It’s clear that we’re supposed to feel as though we’re watching the events unfold from a similar to vantage point to he is. For instance the film opens up with a punch in the gut, as we watch Paul essentially put his father in law (Travis’ clearly beloved grandfather) out of his misery, ‘Old Yeller’ style, and then proceed to burn his remains. Travis watches on, as do we, and even though we quickly realize it’s necessary, we somehow can’t help but feel the same sense of resentment and disapproval that he must be feeling.
From there we begin to learn more about their carefully controlled lifestyle, designed to protect them from this mysterious sickness, and any other threats that may exist. However, things heat up when a stranger shows up, looking for supplies for his own family. Mercifully, Paul and Sarah agree to let the three of them (Will, Kill and their young son Andrew) live with them in exchange for animals and work. Of course, in such an environment, things like paranoia, fear and survival instincts do not bode well for such an agreement, and tension ensues.
As the film goes on we get brief glimpses of happiness, just enough to cut through the reality of the picture, like a pickled onion to a taco or candied ginger to a pile of sushi. But the fact is, this is a dark, depressing and bleak film. There’s not much to feel good about, as we see even the good things fall apart and these seemingly normal, fundamentally decent people are forced to do horrible, horrible things. It’s interesting that I say ‘forced’ because in the back of my mind, there’s just enough room for us to wonder if the characters could have acted differently. That’s one of the best compliments I can give such a film.
The film is filled with themes that appear clearly connected to the writer/director Trey Edward Shults personal story. He’s been quoted as saying the film came from inspiration after the death of his father, and played on that relationship and his personal experiences a great deal. One has to feel sorry for the guy, or hope that he put a really, really dark spin on his own personal tale! It’s very clear though, that Shults doesn’t want us to dislike his characters. Any of them. Everything they do is at least somewhat out of necessity, caused by this terrible post apocalyptic reality. It makes for some pretty riveting viewing, and some inward philosophical thinking also. Not to mention some fantastic tension. There’s this very unique dynamic created when you’re watching things unfold, but you really don’t know who to root for. Not because you don’t care for any of them, but because you care for them all. It’s actually fairly unique these days, as generally a movie like this needs a bad guy. But it works.
A lot of people will tell you that the film is about how ‘the true evil in this world is in humanity’, but I see it differently. I never felt like anyone in the film was evil, or even doing evil. It’s a matter of debate but for me, the true evil came from the circumstances that this film puts our characters in. Maybe what they do is evil, but I would like to know what else they ought to do in such horrible, dreadful situations. Such a proclamation, as ‘the worst things in this world come from inside of us’ suggests to me that in order to be ‘good’ our characters should have just went ahead and popped a bullet in their own heads to avoid what was to come. But that’s just my interpretation.
It is important to note, that while it’s filled with tension the film is really pretty light on genuine ‘scares’. That’s not necessarily a criticism. As I said, the film is really not a horror movie as much as it is a post apocalyptic thriller. However, it’s sure to irritate those folks who came to see something stalking people (at night) and murdering them in various violent manners (like the kind gentlemen a few rows down from me).
That being said, there are criticisms to be had with the film. It’s a little one note at times, which although mostly intentional, can create a bit of a flatness. There are a couple small plot holes here and there, although nothing major. While young Travis is played really quite well by the young Kelvin Harrison Jr, there a few scenes where his range is stretched a little too far. But overall, for me the criticisms were few and far between. The worst thing I could really say was that it was somehow just not ‘spectacular’.
After the slow burn, the film’s finale certainly packs a punch and it’s where all of the philosophical questions and awful scenarios really get emphasized. It’s a well executed final act and while many viewers are likely displeased with it, I found it to be the perfect cake topper, on a wonderfully bleak little number.
Overall, It Comes At Night is not a groundbreaking achievement. It’s a really good, tense, dark thriller, filled with things that are tough to watch and tough not to at the same time. But through no real fault of it’s own, it does fall just short of ‘spectacular’. I’d say don’t want this one with the wife and kids though. This one will make you ask yourself just what kind of terrible things you’re all capable of.
Movie Melt Score: 8