Movie Review: It Comes at Night.
It Comes at Night is a treat for film-making fans but may frustrate many viewers.
A24 has exploded onto the distribution scene since its inception in 2012. It has distributed some truly outstanding films such as Moonlight, Room, and The End of the Tour. It has also been behind some fascinating but ultimately flawed products such as Under the Skin, Green Room, and The Witch. Much like those latter films, It Comes at Night is a horror film with interesting ideas and excellent techniques that just misses becoming an instant classic.
It Comes at Night is the second feature film from Trey Edwards Shults and you can tell he is a dedicated student to the craft of film making. This film excels at all of the component pieces that go into making a remarkable film. As a pure exercise in technique, it is one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. Where the project runs into trouble is in its emphatic refusal to answer many of the big questions that it skillfully raises in the excellent first half of the movie.
It Comes at Night (2017)
Tucked away in the secluded woods, a family attempts to eek out a living in the wake of a mysterious global calamity. With little information about the virus that cut them off from the outside world, a father and mother use increasingly desperate means to keep their teenage son Travis safe. When a young family approaches their sanctuary looking for supplies, Travis is fascinated by them but his parents don’t know if they can be trusted.
It Comes at Night is a beautifully made film. The attention to detail in each shot is immediately apparent. There are sequences that made me wish I was the projectionist, so I could play them over and over. Little things like the placement of a hall mirror that doubles Travis’ descent down a stairway or the way in which the camera captures a flashlight playing over tree branches are mesmerizing.
Equally wonderful was the sound. Every noise is carefully selected for effect and given its proper moment. Due to gas masks some of the dialogue is purposefully obscured, and the film uses ambient sounds to convey the situation. It reminded me of a similar trick in Arrival, which was likewise a cinematic treat for the ears. Several times in the film a fire of no small import is started, and it explodes into life in a satisfying whumpf. The film is full of such little details that give great satisfaction.
Last of the Living.
The cast in this film is very good. Joel Edgerton gives a nuanced and gripping performance as a normal man who is becoming habituated to making moral sacrifices for the good of his family. Likewise, Carmen Ejogo plays a mother who is recently bereaved yet is not unwilling to make hard choices. The other family is not as fully fleshed out, but Christopher Abbott is compelling as another father trying to save his family and acts as a counterpoint to Edgerton’s character.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Travis, and I was impressed with his performance. Much of the film takes place through Travis’ eyes, and it is important that he be believable and able to communicate subtle points without much dialogue. Kelvin does so excellently. I’m hard pressed to say if I liked his portrayal more than Edgerton, but it becomes moot because they shine in their shared scenes and really enhance each other.
The Cabin in the Woods.
While I enjoyed the cinematography of the setting, the house that the family holes up in pointed to the first issue I had with the film: the movie can be a bit too well crafted. The geometry of the house is odd; it seems to have angles and blind spots that only a horror movie house would have.
The most striking oddity is a painting by Bruegel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death” that hangs in the cramped hallway that leads to an ominous red door (the only entrance to the house we’re told.) The painting is gorgeous and ghastly, and completely out of place. It’s hanging across from a dozen family photos. Nobody would have that painting or hang it next to glamor shots. It’s there solely as a metaphor and I noticed that it disappears from the rest of the film after it is shown once.
Many elements of the film operate in the same manner. An object or event happens to raise a question or plant an idea, and then it disappears or is never prominently featured again. Travis makes morbid drawings of creatures in the wood, but nothing comes of it. Holes in the story of the rescued family are never discussed. Conversations happen that lead nowhere. It gets distracting when elements appear and vanish just to have momentary impact.
A Nightmare on Elm Street.
In line with that trend, I had a hard time justifying all of the dream sequences that Travis has. I liked several of them, but the trope became so overused that it lost its effectiveness. As respected critic Chris Stuckman noted, the film even changes its aspect ratio during those scenes, further robbing any tension from them. If a visual cue tells you that the jump scares are coming and are just fictions, they have no impact.
One final bit of meta criticism for the film is that many viewers felt the trailers to be misleading. The trailers and their controversy were a big factor for me in seeing this film in theaters. At the end of the day, I have to say that I agree that the trailers are misleading in some details. It makes Joel Edgerton’s character seem much too sinister and it presents material from dreams sequences in ways that imply a more traditional horror movie. I think the movie is still worth watching, but I can see why many people would be upset.
Let the Right One In.
At the end of the day, I really enjoyed It Comes at Night despite its flaws. Having been led into the theater by a trailer I thought was sufficiently cryptic, I didn’t mind that it ended up being a more psychologically oriented horror. It was well acted with great characters, and Trey Edwards Shults put on a clinic for people who love the craft of film-making. It asks a lot of questions and leaves many of them unanswered. That could also irritate many viewers. I think it justified about 90% of those open ended questions, so I wasn’t upset.
This is a tightly paced and well crafted film that intentionally restricts your access to information. You only have what Travis and his family can see or know to go on, and so I felt it was being honest to its premise. If you can live with ambiguity, It Comes at Night is going to reward your patience with a technical gem of a horror flick. Just don’t rely on the trailer!