Heavy on paranoia and forebodings, It Comes At Night is brainy without giving up its gloom and sensitivity.
After his outstanding debut with the family drama Krisha last year, young director Trey Edward Shults came back this summer to rack our vulnerable nerves and explores human conditions once again with It Comes At Night, distributed by indie house A24. Much like his debut feature, Trey’s second movie takes place within the confinement and disconnection of modern family—but with a spin on the post-apocalyptic scenario as society collapses around broken people.
Horror connoisseurs must have spotted many influences in the trailers for this psychological thriller. Relatives and strangers are locked together in a boarded-up house with an impending threat outside—a similar setting to that of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. It Comes At Night also shares paranoid apprehension with recent cult movies like Take Shelter or The Witch in terms of character motivations and psychological undercurrents. But is it something new?
Shults, having worked as an intern in many departments for Terrence Malick's recent movies, is perfecting his sparse storytelling. He crafts events around the barest bones of this genre with deftness for texture, mood, and human interaction. Therefore, admirers of Krisha realize his style at once: exposition isn’t given away in a cheap manner like many post-apocalyptic flicks do. Shults hates exposition, and the lack thereof is beneficial in two ways. First, it grounds the story in realism as characters already know the same thing and needn’t recite background information for us. Second, Shults keeps the circumstance under desirable ambiguity for viewers to interpret the story. Even the movie’s title and poster aim at cleverly and subtly downplaying the actual conflict.
The unsetting score ushers us into a shocking start as we hear an old man breathing. He’s Bud (David Pendleton), dying father of a grieving, helpless Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). His immediate death is staged with intimacy, torment, and regretful faces under gas masks when his son-in-law Paul (Joel Edgerton) and grandson Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) carry him out of the house’s backroom. Paul shots Bud through a pillow and dumps the body in a shallow grave before burning it.
There’s an unexplained infection spreading over the world—or at least in this living community. No newscaster wraps up any unnecessarily necessary gist for us. No character mentions how long this has been going on. Little could be confirmed about this disease—its cause or full set of symptoms. The only signs, which take less than one day to show, are sickening spores on the infected's skin and black saliva dripping from their mouth.
Though dialogue reveals more than just backstories, the movie invites us to look for distinguishable traits in characters. The family owns a dog named Stanley, and the red door in the backroom should stay locked for security. Sarah is sensible and competent; her teenage boy Travis was close to his grandpa, but never to his rugged, hard-working father. It’s because Paul doesn't show the boy care or respect, which Travis got more from Bud and soon receives from a different male adult. When his parents discuss their future, Travis ironically sits at the frame’s focus without their attention or an opportunity to raise his voice. Gradually, he learns to be stoic, yet habitual and passive.
In this situation, food and water are scarce, and there's no advance method for communication. Chilling atmosphere aside, most of the characters’ social identities and relations are stripped off by this sheltered household. Frustrated and problematic, they soon find out if seclusion means safety when a man (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house. After making sure this man comes alone, Paul questions him and pries for answers. The man’s name is Will, and he means no harm. He persuades Paul to travel 50 miles to his residence, where his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and five-year-old son Andrew (Griffin Faulkner) wait for water. On the way, a dubious incident makes Paul more suspicious of Will, but the prospect of nutritious foodstuffs from Will, in return for clean water from Paul, convinces both men to collaborate out of compassion and self-preservation.
Will’s family moves in, but the host stays skeptical. Now we know more about the rules here. Paul has the only set of keys, and they mustn't go out at night and always go in pairs during the day. Despite energy from solar panels, they keep up the frugal use of electricity. Will and Kim, friendly and humble, settle in with their respective domesticities, based on gender socialization. For a short while, companionship contents both families.
Under Shults’ restrained direction, cast members never overstate their demanding roles. Edgerton brings another layer of affection to a tough man with fear and selfishness inside, vigilantly handling all kinds of incidents. For the audience, Kelvin Harris Jr. elevates the surrogate character, relatable yet untrustworthy, with delicate signs of curiosity, opposition, and eagerness to prove himself in the eyes of his parents. While Kim is polite and considerate in a more benign role Keough gets to play, Abbott instills in Will his needed inconclusive sincerity. Even when Will gets physical, tremendous emotions still exude from his dialogue, or simply his act of wood chopping. Sarah is the most humane, and Ejogo’s low-key performance bounces off the aggressive males.
In a psychological horror, the subjective views of characters matter the most, which draws attention to Travis' puzzling “dreams.” They are surreal episodes that reflect his hidden desires, whether it’s a chance to meet Bud or a sexual encounter with Kim. Travis is not aware of courtship as teenagers should have been—we still don’t know how long the situation has been going on. He has only the attachment to Bud, and, partly due to the survival quest, his parents are way past their cutesy phase. Pressured and stirred up, Travis is the one who messes up their order in his coming-of-age tragedy.
For dream sequences, Shults uses a special aspect ratio and their own score. The 2.35:1 ratio, squeezed into 1.33:1 in Krisha to convey its lead's airless loneliness, is now pressed into 2.55:1 and even 3.00:1. During dinners, the one lamp in the middle emits a strong, almost blindingly white, light that draws characters together. Thanks to cinematographer Drew Daniels, breathing spaces are packed with many individual intentions, but these frustrated people know too little and thus, are at odds with one another. Leading to the red door, the narrow corridor is also lit by one lamp as light and shadow soar to the floors and walls of silent, somber brown. Daniels’ camera points out specific changes in attitudes and pulls back to mid-shots when characters are on good terms.
One hour into the movie, those good terms are threatened. Paul and Will sit down, next to a bottle of wine, to talk about their past lives—“before all this shit.” But the sharing has its own agenda. In front of a slightly drunk Will, Paul gets what he aims for, and this detail adds to the qualm he’s been holding from the first day they met. The audience can’t blame him because no one can resist disbelief for Will. At this point, echoing sound design and percussions from Brian McOmber's ominous score intensify the simmering tension.
These are nice people forced, by what makes them human, to do something that lies on the other end of the moral spectrum. To what else would the family men—Paul, Will, and Travis—hold on in this crisis? After losses and before an imminent closure, fear and misunderstanding pour in their minds as the idea to keep going aimlessly wears them out. Heavy on paranoia and forebodings, It Comes At Night is brainy without giving up its gloom and sensitivity.
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