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The clever ambiguity of It Comes At Night

Director Trey Edwards Shults gives us a smart thriller that will work up people who hate open-to-interpretation movies.

[This article contains spoilers for It Comes At Night]

After The Witch in 2016, It Comes At Night is this year’s elusive horror movie from A24. Lauded by critics and dismissed by the mainstream audience, this is the second feature from Trey Edward Shults, who brought us the intense 2016 drama Krisha. This time, he again delves into themes of family relationships and mental troubles—in a case of parent-teenage child dynamics when an infectious disease ravages society. To get the spoiler-free overview on character basis and storytelling techniques, jump to our review.

Stressing on a plot full of uncertainties, Shults leaves a few unresolved questions for viewers. Who lets the disease in? Is Will lying to Paul? What is “it”? They may be open to interpretation, but Shults’ story answers the most important inquiry: what makes Travis do what he chooses to do.

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THE SITUATION

There has been a mysterious plague, and the movie doesn’t show much of its exact symptoms, except for black goo dribbling from the victim’s mouth, and preventive methods by the survivors.

Despite Shults’ intention to conceal key details, he and DP Drew Daniels provide a few shots of a wall painting, namely Pieter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death.” What this image depicts is a literal war of humankind struggling in desperation against skeleton warriors. These skeletons represent the most powerful force of nature—death, particularly by epidemics. Via this visual cue, the story doesn’t focus on this specific disease, as we never completely understand natural forces, but on how it devastates the human condition. Paul must have understood this idea about epidemics the most; history teachers are not unfamiliar with the most impactful yet overlooked factor in our kind’s complex chronicle.

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The movie sets up a demanding scenario for us to ruminate existentialism and also our own existence. Characters are living in a world that goes on, still without meaning like the existentialist philosophers insist, but people even lack the means to search for their own meaning. In this situation, they are deprived of their social identities and imbued with doubt and growing detachment from reality.

Viewers see this in how Paul treats Will, the intruder—tactful, straightforward, but almost inhuman. However, Will understands and sympathizes with the captor; he’s willing to prove his benevolent intentions. Later, Paul coming back with Will's family confirms that Will, Kim, and Andrew really live 50 miles away from Paul's. So Will couldn't have seen the smoke from Bud’s burning corpse before breaking in, but how do we explain the two assailants on the way? Again, Will’s explanation seems reasonable but never quenches the smoldering suspicion from a bewildered Paul. This tension between them is believable thanks to Shults’ clever scenario writing—a circumstance we can read both ways.

WHAT DOES TRAVIS EXPERIENCE AT NIGHT?

“How are you, Travis?” “Just empty.”

Like Take Shelter and The Witch, It Comes At Night circles around expectations, hidden motivations, and the dread that follows. Characters hide nasty secrets from one another and handle problems on their own, partly due to pride, partly due to genuine concerns for family members.

For all we know, Travis could have been born after the virus outbreak and been growing up different from normal teenagers since then. Bud’s death takes a toll on him; by the blank look on his face, we can imagine how close Travis and Bud were. That’s where inspirations from John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence comes in: a son under the influence of hormone, his parents, and social relations. Looking at little Andrew, Travis sees an age gap of twelve years, but they are almost the same in the eyes of their own parents.

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Travis' confusion and curiosity are apparent in his dreams, where he holds the only source of light in the pitch-black night. His sketches of ghoulish figures also seem to come from his nightmares where Travis wanders the dark woods. As Inception tells us about dreams, these experiences always happen after abrupt transitions from the previous scenes. That’s because Travis sleepwalks, and “dream sequences” are bizarre experiences reflecting his desires—to meet Bud again and to be intimate with a young woman.

But how can he go out at night? Because Paul leaves his keys unwatched on the chest of drawers at night, the sleepwalking Travis can sneak into his parents’ unlocked bedroom and grab them for a nightly tour. We can spot one scene near the end that provides visual proofs for this argument.

We also see Travis, still conscious, eavesdropping on Will and Kim as the bemused boy is curious in the presence of an attractive female stranger. However, Kim is mindful when conversing with Travis. Covering herself, she tries not to seem promiscuous and give away sensual signals, but he seeks them anyway. There's an obvious vibe of sexual expression when a woman is pumping water—Sophia Coppola shows viewers that in her remake of The Beguiled.

When his dog Stanley chases after something in the woods, POV shots of Travis running after his pet dog is followed by grotesque tree branches hemming in to foreshadow the malice. To the boy’s frustration, his father orders him to return: “I'm not losing you over your grandpa's dog!” This angry reaction provokes Travis’ curiosity, opposition, and repressed paranoia. Though Paul comforts him at once and promises to look for Stanley in the following morning, psychotic phantasms already poison his mind.

Travis might resist external elements or try to protect the status quo—or both—but Shults succeeds at implying a boy’s notion of manhood when father-and-son tension exerts more doubt and bewilderment on this obedient 17-year-old boy.

WHAT IS “IT”?

Exposition is sparse as this intentional avoidance tells us "Don't think about the disease or anything out there!" Instead, the fear of losing loved ones, seen during Bud’s death, is predominant. Thus, It Comes At Night shows the unimaginable length we go and the sinister limit we cross to look after and hold on to loved ones.

Suspicion already arises when two strangers ambush Paul on the way to Will’s house—are Will’s punches just his bluff? Later, drinking makes Will lower his guard, and something is wrong when Will slips a piece of background information that conflicts with his earlier words. Is he lying about this “brother” of his? And Travis hears an ambiguous conversation between Will and Kim about someone being infected—do they imply Andrew or Travis? These three scenes fool with our minds because we can read them in two contrasting ways and they both make sense. That’s the ingenuity of It Comes At Night, which requires the finest craftsmanship. Along the lines of cynicism, Paul is indiscernibly vexed as Travis finds in Will a kind of respect and casualness that Paul never receives. Egoistic impatience warps their shared reality, and they become victims to apparitions. The final push of distrust ensues after Stanley comes back, maimed and dying. Everyone keeps it cool as they understand the stake, but Travis finally gives in to his apprehension.

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Many conflicted individuals occupy the cramped space, and during dream sequences, the 2.35:1 ratio is pressed into 2.55:1 and 3.00:1. These purposeful use of technical details bridge the nightmarish implication of how this situation plays out. The climactic scene has the same ratio as that of Travis’ surreal dreams though the killing happens outdoors. Reality is now more disgusting and tragic than any dream can ever be.

Blood is thicker than water. Family is where we find comfort and support, and we should hold on to our relatives. But should we always trust them over facts and rationality? Even when, within restrictions, parents and children assert control and manipulation over one another? The trappings of the post-apocalyptic horror subgenre never hold It Comes At Night back, and Shults gives us a smart thriller that will work up people who hate open-to-interpretation stories.