Trey Edward Shults, director of the riveting psychological drama Krisha (2015), now brings us the haunting tale of a family whose precarious hold on life in the wake of a deadly epidemic is severely tested by the arrival of a second group of survivors asking for help.
It Comes at Night is a highly atmospheric, and at times visceral, experience, eerie and unnerving and mournful in the unique way horror films can be, but its sparse dialogue and paucity of explanations will likely try the patience of viewers. Some (it happened in the movie theater I attended) will be confounded by the movie’s abrupt ending. There’s a fine balance between artfully leaving things unsaid and being downright esoteric, and I can understand those who might be frustrated or feel cheated because they perceive the film, particularly in its third act, veers into the latter. Still, if you like your horror well-paced and thought-provoking, you may want to check this one out.
The film kicks off with a gruesome sequence: the grandfather of the young protagonist, Travis, has contracted whatever unspoken disease has sent the family out into the woods in the first place, and Travis’ father takes him outside, shoots him, and burns the body. As the camera soars up and lingers on the rising smoke and ashes, we can’t help but be somewhat sickened by the intimacy of the killing act we’ve witnessed, while also sensing menace in the woods, an unknown force or presence that might catch the scent of death in the wind and be drawn to it.
This opening development makes it clear that Travis’ father, Paul, and his wife, Sarah, will do whatever it takes to keep the family alive, even if it means killing one of their own, and it underscores Travis’ emotional stress. Later in the movie, after the family has made contact with Will and Will’s family, Paul leans close to Travis and heeds caution: “You can’t trust anyone but family.” The line, beautifully delivered by Joel Edgerton, whose performance throughout is consummate, is ironically foreshadowed by that initial death of Sarah’s father. And while we’re on acting: there are no weak links here. Though Edgerton, along with Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Travis, may get more screen time than some of the other characters, Carmen Ejogo as Sarah and Christopher Abbott as Willis are equally nuanced and absorbing in their portrayals. The cinematography and directing are also fine. Brian McOmber’s score serves its dread-inducing purpose but rarely rises above textured soundscape.
I won’t go into the details of how Travis’ family ends up connecting with Will’s, because there’s a fair amount of tension in the telling, but I will say that your willingness to go along with events once the families have come together may depend on what you think about human nature. If you’re somewhat pessimistic about how humans behave when subjected to great stress—think Lord of the Flies—then disbelief won’t be an issue. On the other hand, if you tend to think that people generally rise above their baser impulses and stave off paranoia or violence, you may find yourself shaking your head.
Regardless of your stance on the verisimilitude of the plot’s third act, I think one criticism that can reasonably be leveled against It Comes at Night is the preponderance of dream sequences. As I’ll discuss in the following section, there may be more to these than initially meets the eye, but even so, I still felt like they were overdone and drained the film of some tension. I understand that these dreams provide us with insight into Travis’ internal landscape, but I feel like this could have been equally accomplished with more character interactions.
I love the idea of this movie, and while the visual execution of its story is technically admirable, it left me feeling a bit cold. I don’t mind a lack of resolution, but I do wish the film had been a little more explicit about the significance of the red door and what the family was trying to keep out at night. There are some metaphorical interpretations that come to mind, but ultimately the red door is a physical construct. Is it only symbolically important? And regarding Travis’ dreams and sleepwalking: the film’s aspect ratio changes whenever we enter these dreams—except later in the movie, when the dream-ratio is used for the real horrific events involving the attempted escape of Will’s family. Reality has become nightmarish, sure, but is more than that? Has Travis’ nightmare realm somehow loosed itself upon the wider world? Is that part of how the sickness works?
Other questions viewers will likely be asking themselves and, for what it’s worth, my take:
1) What exactly happened to Travis’ dog Stanley?
The dog was likely attacked by someone or something that was sick and was thereby contaminated.
2) What is the meaning of the film’s title?
I think the title works in maybe three ways: a) "It" refers to the carrier of the sickness/outbreak. b) "It" refers to an enemy that works by debilitating your subconscious, as happens to Travis, who starts having insomnia, then nightmares, then becomes voyeuristically obsessed with the second family, and so on. This "it" weakens your mind and in that way gets to your body as well. c) "It" is the fear/anxiety/stress etc. we’ve all experienced at night.
3) Does Travis die? Is Will’s baby really sick or not?
My reading of the final scenes is that Travis does indeed die, and Paul and Sarah sit at a table, numb with shock, but having to ponder what to do next, given the high odds that they themselves may now be sick. When Travis runs after the dog, he appears to be by himself for a second, before Paul and Will catch up with him, and he thinks he sees or hears something. I believe that this is the instant in which Travis becomes infected, or turns the terminal corner; he was already headed on this path. Whether the infection takes root because of his weakened psyche, or is physically transmitted regardless, is unclear. Later, Travis infects Andrew when he finds him in the other room, not realizing at the time that he himself has been exposed. Because Andrew is much smaller, his symptoms manifest before Travis’, creating confusion about the contagion’s vector.
You may end up interpreting events differently, and having conversations about it with other viewers can be fun. But ultimately I think the movie will only connect with you if you care about the characters and believe they are behaving in a way that makes sense given their circumstances. I’m about half-way there. The actors’ performances certainly drew me in, but the absence of backstory for the leads and the deliberate lack of specificity about their world and situation made it difficult to relate to them. David Lynch, regarding his contribution to a CowParade exhibit, once said, “My cow is not pretty, but it is pretty to me.” It Comes at Night may be the opposite of Lynch’s cow: inarguably aesthetic, but not personally moving.