On teenage dreams, tenuous peace, postapocalyptic property law, and death's triumphs at Night
It Comes at Night A24
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes / 2.35:1
June 9, 2017
(out of four)
It's not the end of the world so much as the shrinking of it. A movie like It Comes at Night - in which a mostly unseen apocalyptic event has left civilization in scattered remnants - has the unique ability to start with a clean slate. To reset our subconscious assumptions. In nearly any other setting, we expect - and not just expect but know - that there's a whole world out there if and when we need it. Movies may generally be set in specific places, and those settings may often be narrow - isolated locations, limited physical spaces - but there's always the implicit knowledge that they exists within a larger one.
In a contemporary setting in particular - and Night qualifies, existing in a time at least adjacent to present-day - there is a perpetual sense of awareness. Jumbled and cacophonous as it may be, unreliable as it may be, situational information and stimuli are nearly constant. Even for a single-location narrative, portals to the world at large are practically ubiquitous; we don't need physical assurance to feel it, access it, or otherwise know it's there, surrounding the story if not actively a part of it. In this film and others similarly insulated - Into the Forest, Z for Zachariah and Goodbye World are recent examples that come to mind - those safety nets go away. That's part of the appeal - for viewers and I imagine for creators as well. With less to account for externally, with nearly everything we would normally know stripped away, the onus is completely on these people and this place. What you see - and pretty much only what you see - is what you get.
For It Comes at Night, that place is a house in the woods, and the people are a husband, a wife and their son, who are eventually joined by a similar trio. The whole world beyond that house and the woods that hide it - beyond these few square miles - may have burned to the ground for all we know. Something close to that is certainly suggested by the painting writer/director Trey Edward Shults keys on in his early moments - Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death, which in its unforgiving and indiscriminate procession of death lends the film a bleak, fatalistic tone and suggests an operatic quality to its destruction even as the film's violent imagery is otherwise kept to a minimum. It also serves as a nifty piece of exposition - a shrewd stand-in for it, rather - as Bruegel's images are accompanied by the death of the presumptive former patriarch of this rural homestead. Father to Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and grandfather to our protagonist Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the man wheezes his last breaths as his family - gas masks covering their faces - waits those interminable final moments out. It's clear that some sort of viral apocalypse has taken place, but Shults gracefully expresses a lot that remains unspoken. We infer a lot about the world around us by what isn't shown, what isn't talked about. Whenever the situation at hand began and however it spread, we are long past the point of simply being in the middle of a contagion that governments are working around the clock to treat. This family - and others like it, however many or few there may be - may be clinging to each other, but daily survival is as hopeful as it gets. All other ships have sailed.
That the death toll is massive (and growing) is a pretty clear implication, if for no other reason than this nice, decent-sized house - which may be in the woods but isn't far from what used to be civilization - has few visitors. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family have prepared for trespassers*, but they seem genuinely surprised when Will (Christopher Abbott) arrives in desperation at their front door one night.
* I suppose in this reality, neither personal property nor "trespassing" mean much anymore. Under the apocalyptic circumstances, occupancy is 9/10 of property law. (The other tenth is who has the shotgun cartridges.)
Paul's inevitable interrogation of Will's intentions and background is severe but level-headed, and eventually - after getting what he considers acceptable answers and reasonable acquiescence - he allows Will to stay at his home and bring his family: wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The film rarely leaves the main house and its immediate surrounding area, so even when the new family arrives, we see none of the journey of them getting there - see none of whatever exists between one property and the other, which we're told is just a few miles away. As far as we're concerned, the outside world doesn't extend even that far.
Everything is tenuous, and everything is day-to-day. Going out for supplies or recon duty - a job Paul usually takes on himself, although Travis is getting to the age where he's starting to gravitate toward that kind of responsibility - is practically like going on an early manned mission to space. The possibility - the fear - of the person in question not returning is never far from anyone's tongue.
A relaxation - if not exactly comfort - sets in between the two families. Over drinks, of course. And stories of where they met and when their children were born, and when was the last time they saw the rest of their family. There is the sustained and intransigent understanding that these two families are only truly concerned with protecting themselves; breaking bread together is the soothing vestige of a long-faded version of civilization. Politeness is simply ceremony; the only morality that ultimately matters to them under the circumstances is protecting their loved ones. Trust is earned, but that, too, is tenuous - fractured by statements that could reveal lies, or could be simple misunderstandings. And there are enough slightly eerie moments and details - even major events, like the family dog suddenly racing away and disappearing deep in the woods - to keep both us and the characters on edge. Slight inconsistencies in Will's story. Or the odd hints of sexual chemistry between Kim and 17-year-old Travis. (Then again, that could simply be subjective projection on his part - if this were the real world, he'd probably assume every friendly waitress was flirting with him, too.)
The decision to frame the story first and foremost from the perspective of the teenage son is key to the way the film operates, particularly as its equilibrium gets more and more unsettled. Everyone abides by strict rules, particularly at night, and yet things happens that cast doubt on the safety of the house and the states of mind of those in it. We regularly get scenes and shots from Travis' point-of-view, but his dreams - dreams of monsters, dreams of death, dreams of sex - are sprinkled in with increasing regularity. Those moments generally come with an aspect-ratio shift, narrowing to around 2.75:1 - which, especially given the darkness around the frame, initially occurs almost imperceptibly; for a moment I thought it might be gradually shrinking, à la Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm. In any case, it's his fears and his interpretations of events that settle in most prominently, and his warped coming-of-age experience that frames our understanding. The increasingly unstable sense of control and security is conveyed nicely by Brian McComber's score, which at times plays more like sound than music; distant knocks sound like impulses from the back of your mind or feelings in the back of your throat. There's an imprecise anxiety that just sits there - a hum that hovers in the room; low, hollow taps in the distance, the high-pitched woodwinds underscoring the characters' isolation.
The problem that arises with It Comes at Night - Shults' follow-up to his exemplary feature debut, last year's Krisha - is not an uncommon one. By the very nature of its premise, it has written itself into a corner - which can be liberating, even disciplinary, but also exponentially increases the degree of difficulty. What the film requires and attempts is a sustained atmosphere of dread. Instead, the dread is intermittent - Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter is a great example of a film that sustains that feeling for its duration, to the point of becoming agonizing; even the aforementioned Krisha, ostensibly a movie about a Thanksgiving dinner, has a more intense and constant sense of anxiety. This film certainly doesn't require extra narrative or anything like that - I was happily relieved at its lack of overt twists or supernatural intrusions - yet it feels like somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
My favorite detail of The Triumph of Death is in the bottom-right corner of the canvas; a man with a lute serenades a woman (as if peaceably refusing to accept the carnage surrounding them), while just behind them, one of the painting's many death-delivering skeletons mocks the scene, head cocked to the side and playing a stringed instrument of its own, taunting the happy couple that will soon, like everyone else, be dead. It Comes at Night is more visually spare than the crowded composition of its 16th-Century point of reference, and as opposed to the painting's expansive visual range, we rarely (if ever) see beyond a normal line of sight during the film. But the correlations - deliberately called to mind as they may be - can't be avoided. Even without Bruegel's sardonic gestures, the characters in the movie are similarly taunted - by the gas masks they cling to, or the bright red door they insist always remain closed, both treated as affirmations of safety. And yet it, being death, will circumvent those things soon enough. No matter who is alive at the end of Night, there is the pervasive feeling - the knowledge - that this is all so very temporary. It is indifferent.