It Comes at Nihilism
Yeah, I could tell from the trailer this wasn’t a walk down dandelion lane. But the totality of this film’s bleakness surprised me, and I consider myself somewhat desensitized to horror–overexposure and night terrors will do that to you. Which isn’t to say It Comes at Night’s bleakness isn’t earned, effective, even necessary to convey the film’s deafening message. And I appreciate the message. Admire its craft. Yet I couldn’t help thinking, if I had seen this film ten years ago I would have fallen in love with it.
There exists a period of time when we’re most impressionable. I’d say somewhere around the age of 16-22 (ballpark figure). I believe that, good or bad, the art we experience during this time is capable of having profound effects on us. Reservoir Dogs and Donnie Darko would not have had the same effect on me if I saw them, for the first time, now versus at seventeen.
So, a younger version of me sees It Comes at Night and thinks: Damn! This guy’s got it fuckin dialed! Nihilism is so devastating and profound! In other words, I could see this film becoming doctrine for me at one point in my life. But it doesn’t. Instead, the film sparked an intense discussion with my wife about the nature of survival, humanity, and what the hell happened at the end. And honestly, I liked that a lot better.
No One Quite Knows Who or What They Are
This is one of those films where marketing doesn’t honestly represent what you’re going into as a viewer. And in this instance, I think that’s fine. In the trailer, we’re shown images that imply some sort of apocalypse… maybe. The level of devastation is unclear, because the focus is on a singular family. And possibly zombies, or some type of monster? Or sickness? And a red door. Something wanting to come in through a red door. Probably the monster, in whatever form it takes.
None of the above is inaccurate. It’s just much more metaphorical than we’re led to believe. Which is good, trust me. I love zombies and zombie films, but let’s face it; the market is oversaturated. Ten minutes into It Comes at Night I knew I was witness to something different, unique, and intense. The paranoia permeates every scene. There are no zombies, but the threat is everywhere just the same. In fact, it’s worse. There’s a sickness going around, the pathology of which is left intentionally vague. But it is very contagious, and very fatal.
Drama mostly orbits around a singular family of survivors. Husband Paul (Joel Edgerton), Wife Sarah, (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have just to put to rest Travis’s grandpa, who succumbed to the sickness (he got down with it).
Paul and Sarah are survivalists. It’s reasonable to believe they were careful and isolated well before grandpa’s death. Now, they’re even more so. Together, they ride the fine line of practicality and paranoia. Travis is more complex. He loves his parents, respects them. And yet something in him belies a subtle rebellion, born of a sensitivity his parents lack. Or perhaps of his loneliness. Or even a desire for autonomy–a goal that would be nigh impossible to reach under the current, close-quartered circumstances.
Then, along comes the others. A younger family, also comprised of husband, wife, and son. Are they to be trusted? What is their true motivation? Do they mean harm? Are the sick?
Ultimately, a delicate dance of humanity plays out here in the woods. In Travis, and in Travis’s nightmares, the sickness becomes perhaps more than a physical disease. At the end, when all the cards are on the table, the gritty, horrible reality of survival plays its hand. Travis bears witness. And what happens to him, however vague and brutal, still tells us all we need to know about a life worth living.
…And on Guitar We Have:
Joel Edgerton is great at this type of role. Something in the man’s eyes gives cause to question his reliability. He’s also just a plain fantastic actor. Paul as a sane, practical voice of reason in turbulent times, with just a hint of paranoid extremism possibly lurking deep beneath the surface.
Carmen Ejogo plays Sarah similar to Edgerton’s Paul only on the surface–as survivalist voice of reason. Where Paul’s brutal methods to protect his family raise an eyebrow or two, Sarah remains placid, reasonable. And calculated. What one might initially construe as sympathy in her is in fact the end point to an equation. And whatever Paul decides for the sake of their family, Sarah never questions. In fact, behind closed doors, they very likely decide what’s best together.
Will (Christopher Abbott) and Kim (Riley Keough) are the interlopers. Kim stands out more of the two in that she conveys both authentic poignancy and subtle anxiety more convincing than Abbot does as Will. Abott is excellent in emotionally heightened scenes, but he can be strange during downtime. While some of this is attributed to his own murkier motivations, he has some occasional delayed/awkward delivery, and a clunky line or two.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. cements the film’s foundation as Travis–without him, the film wouldn’t have the stakes it does. Hell, Travis is the stakes. He’s largely our proxy, and serves to remind of us of our humanity, regardless of our feelings toward Paul/Sarah’s brutal pragmatism (“spoiler”: our feelings toward Paul and Sarah are prone to shift throughout the film). Harrison Jr. portrays Travis with an honest fear; uncertainty and trepidation vibrate in his limbs, flicker behind his eyes. When he’s angry, that anger erupts with the heartbreaking tenderness of a young man.
This is writer/director Trey Edward Schultz’s second feature film. I have not seen his first, Krisha, but I intend to now. He’s on my radar, and I’m interested where he goes next. Even if you’re not on board with the bleak, nearly nihilist philosophy of this film, Schultz is a craftsman. One amazingly frenetic sequence unfolds in an almost seamless take. In regards to viewer interpretation of events, Schultz intentionally shows us only what he wants us to see. This is sometimes frustrating, but always important as it directs us toward what the film is truly about. And Travis’s nightmare sequences–my god. The music and lens effects blur reality to exquisitely horrific effect.
Play it Again, Sam
This film exudes tension for nearly its entire run-time. As such, it is a seamless, lean and mean experience best digested as a whole. But:
That ride. As Paul reaches out to trust Will, the two form a tenuous alliance, and go in search of Will’s family in the back of Paul’s pick-up truck. Trouble ensues. The pounding soundtrack, the fluid camerawork, and that damn tension working on multiple levels. Hell of a moment.
When the two families come together in the house, there some honest moments of hope. The respite from paranoia comes as a breath of fresh air. The characters have quiet moments of peace, of friendship. Then the air is sucked out, and it’s back into the dark, stale basement we go.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the climax here will perhaps leave you hollow. The truly crushing part is that it perhaps was not inevitable.
It Would Be Extremely Watchable… For You
If you want something different in your horror–something, dare I say, meaningful–then It Comes at Night is a nightmare worth dreaming. And while the message in the madness might not be as original as it thinks, the craftsmanship alone is worth the ride. This is a film’s film. Worth discussion, worth marveling. Worth your humanity.
Whatever’s next from Trey Edward Schultz, I’m there. Here’s an interview with the guy discussing a few technical details, as well as the meaning and influence of the project. If you watch the film, come back to read this. You will have questions, and if not exactly answers, this interview provides more to chew on:
In two weeks:
Dark Souls 3! My least favorite video game in my favorite video game series of all time. Never have I played a more perfect marriage of design, gameplay, and story philosophy. This is dark fantasy at its finest, in any medium.