An Insubstantial Visit: It Comes at Night
It Comes at Night
Director + Screeplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
June 9, 2017
It Comes at Night is Trey Edward Shults’ second feature-length film, and like 2015’s Krisha, it is a study of familial tension and rising anxiety. Unfortunately, the deft hand he showed in his debut is too obscured in this well-styled by hollow horror.
The film starts out with an incredible opening sequence, off-putting and alien, maybe even mystical, especially if you come at it with no foreknowledge of the film (so, minor plot spoilers warning ahead). Night is, in part, a movie about a plague. It’s also a movie about a house, and a family, but it doesn’t seem to be about much beyond that. Joel Edgerton plays Paul, the patriarch of an isolated house in a vast wood. His wife, (Carmen Ejogo), and 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) defer to him with minimal input of their own. He works to keep them safe from intruders and disease, and the house is boarded up and protected with heavy plastic sheeting. Everyone has a gun. And of course, someone breaks in.
Tightly shot, cramped and claustrophobic whether in the woods or in the house most of the story is set in, Night creates a memorable world. Scenes are framed by halos of light from LED lanterns and gun-mounted lights, meaning scenes are crowded in by dark corners. The settings are stark and deep, and appropriately eerie and unsettling — it’s a haunted house that doesn’t know it yet. The woods are a dark threat, the fear of disease permeating the outside world even when the tone of the interior of the house lifts for a bit. The forest is full of ominous branches, interlocking roots, the shadow of secrets hidden there. Night’s setting is impeccable, spooky even in the daytime.
The film tends to rely entirely on theses haunting visuals but never ties them to anything, which sometimes works but primarily means the characters are devoid of any kind of interesting inner lives. Sure, they all have motivations for their actions, mundane and horrific — the end goal for everyone in the house is to protect their own and survive.
But how do they feel about these means? It’s almost impossible to say, as each of them is taciturn and guarded, and the film’s subtleties don’t do much to create anyone interesting. Nor does the sparse and naturalistic, almost mumblecore dialogue. Harrison does his best with Travis, our viewpoint character, and he and Ejogo manage to create a meaningful relationship out of almost nothing, but it’s not enough to let me know who these characters are. Travis is our emotional tether, but floats aimlessly in space. Edgerton’s Paul sometimes feels like a stranger that found this family and is playing a role, rather than a man who can emotionally connect with his wife.
Ultimately, setting up a story as a beautifully shot meditation requires a point. A theme, a through line, a question, or even a subversion, would have elevated the visual storytelling into something beyond a well-shot thrilled. Instead, we’re treated to unsettling dreams and lush, menacing backdrops. There’s no sense of creeping malevolence because the tension is already ratcheted up when we first enter the film — it’s simply sustained, going nowhere.
By the time the film enters it’s inevitable, predictably telegraphed third act, the tension is so high and so unsupported by characterization that there’s no place for the film to go. There’s a somewhat a satisfying contrast between the stark, flat rawness of some of the performances with the eerie woods and troubling dream sequences, but that contrast doesn’t amount to much. And maybe that’s the point, that we’re all the same base animals and nothing matters, death comes for us all, etc., but the film’s use of visual shorthand keeps up the pretense that there’s something to be grasped underneath it all, maybe a theme that brings it all together. Night does a bad job of using its genre toolkit to give us even one sneak peek of what that is — we only get the barest hints of a deeper layer of meaning, the suggestion that all that dark beauty means something. While a more inventive film might get away with that level of inscrutability in exchange for surprising twists or insights, Night is too predictable to be so opaque. It’s all atmosphere and edgy sound design, a beautiful wrapping on an ultimately empty box.
Somewhere in the last few minutes of the film is an ending that would have at least been an effective gut punch, but seems Shults saved all his sentimentality for the very end, bookending the film with the bond between parent and child. The problem with this neat bookending is that it’s completely unsupported by the journey of the film, and especially by the lack of insight we get into Ejogo’s Sarah. If the film wants to be stark and cold, the last few frames feel tacked on and superfluous. Compared to this year’s Raw, Night simply cannot nail the landing.
Ultimately, It Comes at Night is all style, no symbolism. By being too lighthanded on the emotional core of the film — the family, the way those ties help and hinder — it cannot do much more than tell a well-trod story beautifully.