Film Review – It Comes At Night (2017)

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It Comes At Night
Written and directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo

Runtime: 1h 31m

I saw It Comes At Night at a small theatre in New York, with roughly 15 other people in attendance, none of which seemed to be fully prepared for what they were about to observe. When the film ended and the credits begin rolling, the gentleman seated in front of me stood up and raised his hands in confusion and disregard. There were several audible groans, as the woman behind me questioned, “Is that it?” The audience’s response was representative of everything I loved about It Comes At Night, the ominous themes and defiant execution of a beautifully dower script that leads to a truly emotionally evoking cinematic experience. It Comes At Night is a dark and challenging film, a genuine portrayal of human nature and paranoia that succeeds to beautifully weave a stimulating plot with stunning visuals and superb performances.

The plot follows Joel Edgerton’s Paul, along with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and adolescent son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), as they attempt to outlast a seemingly apocalyptic disease by desolating themselves in an isolated country home. The opening scene features the gas mask wearing family gently reassuring Sarah’s father Bud before mercifully shooting him and quickly lighting his corpse on fire. It is a truly jarring and intensely haunting scene that immediately establishes the gruesome nature and heartbreak of the film’s world. The next day, they encounter Will (Christopher Abbott) wandering around their home and Paul immediately grabs his gun and shoots at him, although unsuccessfully. He then ties Will to a tree and proceeds to interrogate him about his intentions and whether or not he is infected with the culture shattering disease. This event spearheads the film’s tense paranoid atmosphere it revels in for the remainder of its runtime.

Riley Keough and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in It Comes at Night (2017)

It Comes At Night conceptually delves deep into the potential consequences of humanity’s need to love and nurture. After being convinced by Sarah and Travis of the importance of having other people around, Paul invites Will to bring his wife and their infant son back to live in the isolated home. As time passes and the two families grow closer and develop a sense of normalcy, several dynamics are established that bring Travis’s loneliness and need to be desired to the forefront. He is the only grown person in the house who lacks a significant other or a person who is directly dependent on him for nourishment or protection. It is alluded to that prior to the events of the film, his elderly grandfather filled this void, as Travis was quite helpful in aiding him. After his grandfather’s death, Stanley, the family dog, gives Travis someone to care for but this bond also ends in tragedy. One night after the two families have become comfortable with each other and fully settled into the situation, Stanley runs out into the woods barking. Following a failed attempt by Paul, Travis and Will to find Stanley, he returns bleeding and clearly infected with the earth shattering disease. This scene is where the film’s opaque stance on humanity begins to truly take shape. It illustrates the concept that humanity’s need to nurture and connect is the very reason it is doomed. This hypothesis is fully exemplified when late one night Travis finds Will and Sarah’s infant baby curled up on the kitchen floor. He gently wakes him, takes him by the hand and walks him to his room. It is a heartwarming sequence, that hints at an optimistic outlook for these characters and society as a whole. This symbolic sanguinity is quickly brought to a halt the next morning in a jarring scene in which Paul and his family wake to the sounds of a hysterically crying baby, seemingly infected with the disease. It generates panic as the audience slowly begins to recognize that Travis, due to touching the child’s hand, has now been infected as the film ends with his death.

There is a Lynchian element at work here as well, as the film features sequel dream sequences working on multiple levels to exemplify this harrowing notion. On the surface, they reflect the effect these extensive deaths have had on Travis while also furthering the film’s notion of humanity’s ill-fated need to connect. The first of which occurs after the death of his grandfather and features Travis slowly entering a room to find a wheezing old man on his bed that shrieks once approached. This sequence appears early in the film and quickly developed the film’s stance on the danger of human connection. This concept is furthered, as Travis begins to develop an affection towards Sarah, he has a dream featuring her walking into his room in her underwear. She mounts him and begins to kiss him, only to then spew black vile into his mouth. The surreal sequence further exemplifies the notion that while affection and emotional contact initially seem constructive and pleasurable, they will ultimately collapse humanity. It is a morally mystifying and thought-provoking stance that is fully established through the final dream sequence that occurs directly before the scene in which Travis contracts the disease. It begins with Travis waking up to find his skin covered in boils and spitting blood. At this point in the sequence it is unclear whether he is dreaming or if this is reality. It only becomes clear once he looks up to find Bud sitting on the bed across from him, wheezing and with completely blackened eyes. It is quite possibly the most unsettling sequence in the film but also the most palpable of its intentions. Not only does it blatantly indicate that Travis has been infected and will soon die, it exposes the actions that have led to this. By presenting the earliest symbol of Travis’s search for human connect in such a horrifically graphic manner sternly cements the film’s attitude towards his behaviour.

It Comes At Night is presents a grounded, personal narrative in a truly sinister world. The cinematography is excellent, a constant blend of long takes and tight frames help to give the film a nauseatingly claustrophobic tone and atmosphere. Director Trey Edward Shults displays a great handle on his craft, exhibiting a masterful demonstration of his thematic intentions. The overall content of the film is refreshingly opaque and stimulating, forcing the audience to recognize the credibility of his disturbing portrayals of humanity and embrace the discomfort of his theories. Maybe that’s why it evoked such a negative reaction in my fellow film-goers, Shults is so relentless in his refusal to employ horror norms and plot tropes that the discomfort it generates may be off-putting to someone expecting a more generic genre film. It Comes At Night is defiant in its rejection of familiar narrative beats and commonly held tried themes but it is all the more invigorating for it.

 

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