In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
First with Krisha, and now with It Comes at Night, writer/director Trey Edward Shults has proven himself to be a supernaturally good storyteller, splitting narrative weight between script and screen, and doling out details at an unconventional, and deliciously entrancing pace. A photo on the wall, a throwaway line, an errant sound cue – any could be pertinent information, and Shults makes that gamble clear from the outset, creating an audience of active, engaged viewers, enveloped beyond belief into a decidedly minimalist story.
That’s why it’s tough to talk about It Comes at Night. The film is much more rooted in tone and ambiguity than plot, and what little plot there is is best left experienced by the viewer. In fact, I don’t even feel right talking about it having seen the movie only one time. I want to investigate this one. I want to parse through the details and find even more thematic layers to this dense, if simplistic, tale. The more I think about it, and the more I wrestle with avoiding spoilers, I wonder if this seemingly spoilable film really has anything to spoil at all. I know that statement makes no sense, but you’ll understand what I mean when you see it, which you absolutely must.
The negative criticisms of this film (and there will only be a few) will likely say that it’s the same old thing, and that it adds nothing new to the genre, but really the opposite is true. It Comes at Night couldn’t be less interested in playing into the tropes of the “trapped in a small space” or “home invasion” subgenre of horror, instead choosing to use our knowledge and expectations of the form to keep us asking the right questions while wondering if we even want the answers.
The story takes place at an unspecified time, potentially the future, after a disease with unspecified terms has presumably wiped out a large portion of the population. A family of four (until very recently, of five) live in a boarded up house in the middle of the woods. They hunt, they eat, and they never go outside at night. When they do, they wear gas masks. A mother, a father, their teenage boy, and his dog, all living in paralyzing fear of some mysterious brand of outside evil.
A man appears at their door, claiming to be the patriarch of a family in a similar situation, desperately in need of water. What follows is a dreadful tug of war, with trust and loyalty at each end of the rope. The sad reality of this particular game is that even the victor will be left standing in a world without hope – in a world where barely enough is as much as one will ever have.
Much like Krisha, this is a story fueled by the explosiveness of familial bonds when placed in a pressurized locale. As such, the actions of every character are deeply rooted in their personalities, and cleanly motivated within the foggy “rules” of the setting. The horror comes not from “no don’t do that” but from “did they really have any choice?” and it all leads to a denouement that could be read a multitude of ways, all equally horrific.
- The house is much bigger than it feels, perhaps hinting that this small family was once considerably larger. Or maybe it’s not their house at all.
- The fact that the lead trio is a mixed-race family with an ambiguous history can be read many different ways. I’d like to take a closer look at the photos prominently featured throughout the film to see if I can build their history.
- What does the title mean? I’ve got my guesses, but I’ll save that for another column.
It Comes at Night opens in Philly theaters today.