It Comes at Night (2017)
Fear turns men into monsters.
Before I begin, a warning — spoilers ahead. I feel it would be impossible to properly review It Comes at Night without revealing certain aspects of the plot, as it’s sorta vital to the discussion. Thus, if you’re curious about the film already, you may as well check it out for yourself first then come back to this after; however, if you’re on the fence or don’t mind spoilers, feel free to read on.
2017 has marked the return of the psychological thriller. Split (2016) and Get Out (2017) were the most notable mainstream examples, but there were also arthouse faves Personal Shopper (2016) and Berlin Syndrome (2017), not to mention the highly ambitious, yet fundamentally flawed epic anomaly A Cure for Wellness (2016), which 20th Century Fox distributed? What chutzpah! Mixing elements from a lot of the aforementioned titles together, It Comes at Night is an experience which is simultaneously disappointing in one regard, yet admirable in another — it will no doubt continue to polarize audiences, as it already has, for reasons which I feel are actually fair and can only be explained with spoilers. (This is your final warning).
During an undisclosed virus breakout, a close-knit family consisting of patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live an isolated existence in the middle of the thickets. Having been forced into helping perform a mercy killing on his sick maternal grandfather Bud (David Pendleton), Travis begins to have nightmares, which worsen with the abrupt arrival of a panicked Will (Christopher Abbott), who’s found sneaking into the house in the middle of the night. As an uneasy understanding emerges between Paul and Will, the family welcome Will’s partner Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) into their home — at first a blessing to the socially starved trio, but it’s not long before suspicions abound and tensions rise to an unbearable high.
Let’s start with the expectations going in. A brilliant marketing campaign matched by a mysterious title that utilized a really great hook — one poster featured a blurry dog barking into a dark forest, with the question on everyone’s mind being, ‘What’s in the woods?’ Another poster, this one of a silhouetted figure shining a beacon of light down a black corridor, raised all the classic expectations of a suspenseful horror. The trailer emphasized a tight family that wouldn’t go out after dark as the tagline is thrown at us, ‘Fear turns men into monsters’ — powerful stuff. Are you thinking about the monsters yet? Hell, I was. I figured this could be the version of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004) that we yearned for back in the day, but got short-changed on, courtesy of a twist that turned most people off (I didn’t mind it as much). I was hooked from the opening frames of It Comes at Night and patiently waited on edge for the ‘it’ to arrive; but here’s the kicker, it never does, certainly not the ‘it’ you’re expecting and definitely not the way some might hope. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Evil Dead (1981) this ain’t.
Knowing what it isn’t, the question then moves to what the narrative really involves and what merit it holds. Well, as you all know, monsters come in many forms — in nightmares, viruses, fragile, paranoid human behavior — this latter aspect (especially) being key to appreciating what writer-director Trey Edward Shults, Krisha (2015) is genuinely going for. Imagine living in a world of intense distrust, isolation and fear of the unknown — what does that do to someone’s mind? Shults suggests a relentless nightmare — one that doesn’t stop upon waking. One part, the claustrophobic paranoia of William Friedkin’s Bug (2006), the other caught up in the deathly dreams of the mysterious Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Shults creates an atmosphere that will either keep audiences on the edge of their seats or have them looking for the exit in boredom.
The most ideal way to engage with It Comes at Night would be to avoid all of the marketing, including its title, as this way the film would exist within itself, without preconceived expectations and could be seen for what it actually is, rather than what it isn’t. There’s a lot to admire here from yet another flawless performance by Joel Edgerton, The Gift (2015), (give the man an Oscar already), to the amazing rendering of unlit space by director of photography Drew Daniels, Krisha (2015), and the unsettling mood created by composer Brian McOmber, Ugly (2013). While some may feel that the narrative raises too many unanswered questions, I feel that this fits well within the intentions of the story — we fear what we don’t know and in order to try and get a lid on it, our minds go into overdrive, creating possibilities that may or may not actually exist, usually from little evidence. This excited state of over thinking is what the audience will (probably) be going through while watching this film — talk about interactive cinema.
If you’re willing to re-visit the film again, you may even find yourself appreciating the subtle, yet firm suggestions that were there in the first place (that you might’ve missed). Notice the extra wide frame during the nightmare sequences, which, by the climax, becomes a motif that’s expanded upon and used to suggest a waking nightmare, which famous screenwriter guru Robert McKee called ‘the negation of the negation’ — basically the worst thing that could possibly happen within the narrative context. As frightening as it feels, a nightmare can’t truly affect one’s reality, but what if that reality becomes a nightmare? It’s this question that It Comes at Night finishes on, without saying a word — frustrating to some, chilling to others.
See too how the film resolves the question of how the bolted down door was opened — the ending shows us that we just need to accept the visual information as it’s presented rather than fight the obvious answer — sure, you may want it to be something more, but it’s not. There’s a lot going on with Travis, it’s his story after all and viewers understand everything through his eyes — once again, there’s an obvious answer to his arc if one is willing to accept the manner in which it resolves, the key revelation illuminating the mysteries that have come before it. By focusing your attention on what the film is truly doing rather than what it isn’t, it’s clear that It Comes at Night is a tense character study and not ‘the monster in the woods’ horror flick some might want it to be. By accepting the former and leaving aside the latter, it’ll become much clearer as to why questions concerning ‘what’s in the woods’ are fundamentally irrelevant — it’s just not the point at all.
To put it all together, It Comes at Night ultimately takes a familiar apocalyptic plot device and renders it in a stunningly original, audacious manner. Make no mistake, it will divide audiences and a huge amount of that will be based upon what’s being brought into the film, rather than an acceptance of what its real intentions are. If you can somehow divorce what you think you know about the movie beforehand from what will be revealed to you over the course of its running time, you may just find one of the most unique, bleak cinematic experiences of the year.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie