It’s been a rough year or two.
I’ve found that when things are going badly in life, there are two possible paths to take with the media you choose to consume. You can either push back against the negative by exclusively drowning yourself in more thoughtful, happy-ending stuff (or fully escapist fantasy, sci-fi and action fare); or you can give in to the bad feelings and watch/read/play dark, depressing shit.
It Comes at Night, the new horror film from director Trey Edward Shults, falls firmly into that latter category. It is a bleak film, one whose philosophy borders on nihilism. And the further I’ve gotten away from my screening of it earlier this week, the less I’m convinced that it earns that dismal outlook.
The film is suffused with heartbreak from its opening moments. A small family of four lives in a house in the middle of the woods. Grandfather Bud (David Pendleton) has come down with an infection. The viewers do not know what this infection is, but it causes the old man to wheeze, for strange spots to grow on his skin, for his eyes to turn onyx and empty.
Paul (Joel Edgerton), the father of the household, and 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) wear gas masks as they lead Bud outside of the house, while mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) stays behind in tears. It’s obvious that Bud will not be returning even before we witness his graphic fate.
It Comes at Night doesn’t share many details about the fate of its grim world, but there are tidbits that can be discerned even just from viewing the trailer. The infection that leads to Bud’s death has ripped through the United States, and Paul has taken his family into a tiny, creaking house in the forest to wait out the end of the world.
Edgerton’s performance as Paul is a highlight of the film, which is not to say that it’s particularly pleasant to watch. A hard-nosed patriarch who’s willing to go to any lengths to preserve his family, Paul has a severity to his words and looks that suggests he could explode into anger and violence at any time. Counter to that stands Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis, a meek teenager wrestling with puberty in the post-apocalypse. Travis is the only character in the film who’s both old enough to remember the world before it collapsed but young enough to have a whole lost future to mourn over.
Though it has a few scenes set out in the woods, the vast majority of It Comes at Night takes place within that tiny house, and the film uses that space brilliantly. Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels have keen eyes for how to use literal darkness in their figuratively gloomy film. From long shots of Travis walking down hallways late at night, lit only by the glow of a lantern, to the film’s iconic image of a bright red door standing out against an otherwise bare wooden wall, the movie has a way of drawing the viewer’s eye to what’s important without letting us forget the nothingness constantly pushing in at the edges of these characters’ lives.
The film also expertly employs subtle sound design. The wooden floors groan. Snippets of dialogue can be heard surreptitiously through thin walls. The audio builds the sense of a place literally too small for the number of people trying to exist within it.
As It Comes at Night trudges along toward its conclusion, the inevitably of something terrible and horrific grows. Many reviews have referred to this as a movie that defies conventions, turning expectations on their head, but I felt the opposite. As soon as I recognized the kind of film this was, its end point seemed certain. Anyone who’s read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road probably has an idea where events are headed, although to the film’s credit, it holds even less back than that powerfully sad novel.
That It Comes at Night is sad to the point of depression is not in and of itself a weakness. If anything, my biggest concern is that its stakes are not clear. The film is so vague about the nature of the threat at its heart, that it becomes impossible to truly gauge the actions of the characters in relation to it.
Without spoiling too much, the final statement It Comes at Night seems to be making is that people are monstrous and terrifying. You can argue the merits of that point, but at the very least it’s not something new for the genre. But it would be much easier to read the actions of Paul and others in the film in that light if we, as an audience, truly understood what was happening in the world and what choices were available.
Or perhaps I’ve completely misunderstood Shults’ intended message. With a film so indirect, that’s a possibility worth keeping in mind.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying that It Comes at Night presents a cloudy outlook on humanity. Hopelessness in media isn’t always bad; especially at particularly challenging times in life and in human history, staring into the abyss can help provide clarity.
That’s not the case here, though. I enjoyed the tense, moment-to-moment progression of It Comes at Night, but I did not feel like it left me with a better understanding of anything. Maybe humans really are monsters; maybe the world really is fucked. Even if you’re joyless enough to believe these generalities, certainly there must be more interesting statements for a movie to make.