James Rosario is a writer, filmmaker, and musician based in the Asheville, NC area. His record label, Bigger Boat Records, releases...
It Comes at Night (2017)
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Reviewed by James Rosario on June 15, 2017
Trey Edward Shults’s It Come at Night is not an easy film to watch. It’s also not particularly enjoyable, in the usual summer popcorn sense. It’s challenging stuff, and getting through the experience may prove difficult for many viewers. It certainly was for me. The first two acts build to an insanely intense climax that I, on a personal level, had trouble with. I found myself physically angry at the film, to the point of clenching my fists. After a few moments, when I had calmed down some, it became clear what I had just seen, and why it existed in the film. I had a new outlook on my original anger. It was the father in me that made me so angry at the film’s climax, but it’s also the father in me that let me eventually forgive it.
2015’s The Witch set the bar pretty high for a new kind of horror, one that utilizes atmosphere and a building intensity over jump scares and gore. It Comes at Night is of the same ilk (and not surprisingly from the same production company, A24), but maybe not quite as good. This is simply because many of the tropes used have been seen before. This isn’t meant as a slight, they’re used mostly better here than in the films they’re lifted from, but we’ve already seen them nonetheless.
With its isolated house in the woods surrounded by an unknown “other,” the Evil Dead movies (1981, 1987, and 2013) come to mind, but the comparisons end there. There are also elements of The Blair Witch Project (1999), with many scenes taking place in near darkness, being lit only by flashlights and lanterns (plenty of black space for your mind to play tricks on you). Thankfully, we’re not subjected to the shaky cam that those films are known for, and like I said, It Comes at Night does a much better job with these elements than those other films (well, maybe not the first Evil Dead movie).
At its core, It Comes at Night is akin to a zombie siege movie. A family is isolated in the forest, hunkered down against an unknown disease that seems to have wiped out most of civilization. Things are going reasonably well (that is, after their numbers are cut down by a full one quarter in the opening scenes), until the inevitable happens: someone new shows up.
The family, (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) eventually give aid to and take in the trespassers, who turn out to be another family (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, and Griffin Robert Faulkner) simply seeking shelter and water. Cooperation and increased numbers make life a bit more tolerable, for a time. Eventually, paranoia, mistrust, and self-preservation cause the whole arrangement to crumble in rather disturbing ways.
But the reason it’s so disturbing is also what makes it almost acceptable. Neither of the patriarchs—Paul (Edgerton) or Will (Abbott)—ever act out of pure evil or malice. They are simply doing what they must do (as they see it in the heat of the moment, anyway) to ensure the safety of their families. Therein lies how I can be both disgusted by the actions, while still understanding the motivations behind them. A moral conundrum if there ever was one.
Many hardcore horror fans are likely to be disappointed (I have friends who certainly are), especially if you take the misleading trailers into account. Make no mistake, though, the film is scary, just a bit untraditionally perhaps. The graphic nightmares of 17-year-old Travis offer the most horrifying imagery of the film, but the actions of the adults are what drives the intensity. Through the initial interrogation of Will by Paul, we learn that nobody knows just what the hell is going on in the world, and that everyone is scared. Fear of the unknown is a great motivator, but so are isolation and claustrophobia.
If you really want to get down to it, It Comes at Night is a think piece. It’s an examination of motives, and the lengths people are willing to go through to protect those they love. It’s definitely scary (possibly the scariest I’ve seen this year so far), but it’s not a horror movie in the truest of senses. Its horror lies in the realization of what you, as the viewer, may be capable of if put in an impossible situation.
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