What comes at night? I don’t know, but I like it!
With a pandemic still raging (here in the US, anyway), this movie hit a little differently than the first time I watched and barely paid attention to it. A lot of my movie-watching is dictated by Mr. Husband, Nelson, since we watch everything together, and Nelson had seen this movie before me. That meant that he thought it would be best to just skip through to all the “cool” parts for my enjoyment (I did not enjoy that.)
But what I did see, I liked, so I was glad to give this movie a real shot, and watching it flew by almost as if I hardly saw anything at all. It Comes at Night is an artful, chilling take on sickness-related isolation, something akin to the small-group anxiety of zombie movies, but the humans never look like monsters, which makes it all the worse. You can catch this film, directed by Trey Edward Shults, is available on Netflix.
Right at the open, viewers are greeted with a dreamy, feverish sequence as a small family says goodbye to their sick grandfather before killing him and burning his body outside of their home. It’s horrifying, but gentle, like a funeral before the death has taken place. The family, comprised of father and mother Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). They also have a scruffy little pup, Stanley (played by some cutie pie named Mickey.) The family mourns silently and without explanation as to what happened to their grandfather. The tone is ominous, with dusk-lit lighting and a boarded up house or the woods filling every shot.
For those of us metaphorically boarding up our own lives, the woodland isolation of Paul and his family feels like a heightened version of our own reality. And for some of us, the threat is just as intense.
Soon after grandpa is gone, a stranger, Will (Christopher Abbott), breaks into the family’s house in an effort to find food and water for his own family. After being tied up in the woods for a day to ensure he doesn’t show any symptoms, Will convinces Paul to pick up his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Although Paul doesn’t trust the family fully, he allows them into his home and the six of them live in a fragile harmony for a while before Stanley chases something in the woods and disappears for a day.
Travis, heartbroken and worried for his dog, chases after him. Paul, in turn, chases after his son while screaming at the top of his lungs, shattering the general quiet that has pervaded the film. This is the turning point: once again, the family’s bubble is out of their control, and Paul’s aggressive desire to protect Sarah and Travis becomes more evident than ever.
All the while, Travis suffers from nightmares and desires. He dreams often of blood waterfalling from the mouths of himself and others, an apparent symptom of the mysterious illness his family tries so hard to avoid. Those slight moments of unreality pull viewers back and forth between the horrors of waiting for sickness to come and the horrors of reliving it over and over.
That’s why, when Travis finds little Andrew sleeping in his grandfather’s old room, we can’t really be sure if this is the start of another nightmare or if it’s really happening. Travis wakes the child up and delivers him to Will and Kim’s bedroom, where he climbs into bed with his parents. Then, Travis hears a noise coming from the always-locked front door; he finds it slightly open.
When Paul and Sarah, now awake, come to check out the issue, they find Stanley dying from the sickness. From there, it’s a snowball of distrust and violence, ending with Paul chasing down an infected Will, Kim, and Andrew after Will threatens Paul, asking for his “fair share” of food and water so that he can take his sick son and leave. They don’t make it out alive.
Unfortunately, neither does Travis. One of the most distressing shots of the film (not scenes–the scene with Kim wailing over Andrew’s body made me cry) is a short one: after Travis closes his eyes to the same words Sarah spoke to her father before he was killed, Sarah and Paul sit together at a table, their skin covered in injuries that suggest infection, and their faces molded into something Dante-esque in their agony. Then the film ends.
Whew. It’s a hard watch without a worldwide pandemic, and it isn’t horror in the sense that I’m afraid, but It Comes at Night has no trouble leaving me deeply affected by the tormented ambition of this family. No matter how hard they try, this universe isn’t safe for them.
I find myself, firstly, drawn to the beauty of the film. The scenery isn’t anything special, but it is captivating in its simplicity and familiarity. There is symmetry reminiscent of The Shining, particularly apparent in one scene where Travis sits in the tiny attic–with a ceiling so low that I would be suffocating–with Stanley as he watches out the window to the world below. It’s a succinct vision of his life: he’s trapped here, held in by the thing that keeps him safe, and the rest of the world is practically unreachable.
But something that is SO IMPORTANT in horror and is, often, misused or underutilized, is the audio. I can’t say I loved all of the sound effects, but there are moments of chaotic, draining sound (music?) that makes my heart beat faster as if some ancient signal is being sent into my brain to be freakin’ afraid. It’s not fun, but it sure is effective.
It Comes at Night is a great addition to the isolation horror genre, and, what it does better than some other movies is that it really destabilizes the family unit in a way that, I think, would be accurate in this kind of dystopia. We see it in other films, like A Quiet Place, and even on a larger scale in stories like The Walking Dead. But the sublime containment of this film–intensified by the lack of explanation or reasoning–is what makes it special.
‘Til next time,