|Caught between a rock and a hard place...|
The award for the most divisive film of 2017 is almost certain to go to It Comes at Night: the gleefully ambiguous and devastatingly bleak thriller that’s been tearing through American audiences for a whole month now, but which has only recently brought its controversial wares to the shores of the UK. As an illustration of the issue, it simultaneously has 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a D on Cinemascore – hardly something that could be called a critic/audience consensus. The fact is, however, that It Comes at Night is a bleak, tense, and at times terrifying trip into the heart of the unknown – one that’s unlikely to leave you for a good few days afterwards.
Trey Edward Schults directs Joel Edgerton in another incredible role as the father figure of a small family on the brink of human extinction. Together with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and son (Kelvin Harrison), he’s really just trying to stay alive in an incredibly hostile world. Schults isn’t objective – we seem to be seeing the entire affair from the viewpoint of the son, Travis, but there’s also cause at various moments to suppose that this perspective is shifting. One night, a stranger (Christopher Abbott) turns up – saying he’s looking for water, and the family are drawn into a slowly escalating situation of paranoia and violence.
|Tense and thrilling.|
The problem with trying to describe It Comes at Night is that it evades concise description. To his credit, Schults doesn’t feel the need to explicitly answer any of the questions he poses: what’s in the woods? What happened to the world? Is anything actually wrong at all? Hell, what does the title even mean? Upon leaving the theatre, all three of us that saw it had very different opinions about what did and didn’t happen in its brief runtime, and what it all meant.
What’s certain is that it’s a harrowing story of desperate people in desperate times – fighting hard just to survive and nothing more. The choices that they make may, at times, feel evil and sadistic – but surely not one of us can claim we’d certainly act differently in the same circumstances. And, I guess, that’s one of the scariest things about It Comes at Night – in it, we are the monsters. Paul isn’t emotionally distant – he’s very much in love with his family, and bonds with his new guests with little reservation. Whatever’s happened to the world hasn’t necessarily changed him; it’s changed the value of being human in the first place: catalysing a return to the kind of primal impulses that define every-man-for-themselves societies.
And as you’ve probably already heard, this movie is tense as hell. For its first 20 minutes, It Comes at Night takes things almost painfully slow – as if it wants to test your patience – and then, inexplicably, it slams on a characteristically oppressive atmosphere all at once: an atmosphere that never fades for the rest of the runtime - I was on the edge of my seat for almost the entire affair.
But there’s certainly fear as well: I counted around 3 or 4 jumpscares – and a lot of the tension amounts to anticipating something horrible at any minute. In one particular scene, Travis finds himself deep in the woods, pointing a gun at a tree. I don’t know how Schults did it: perhaps it was in the sound design, or perhaps it had something to do with the framing, but in that exact moment I felt something like true fear – something primal and raw – an urge to run away as fast as I could. It was only for a split second, and the situation quickly resolves itself, but it’s a moment that hit me like a sledgehammer. Similarly, there’s a scene involving a young child lying on the floor that brought on the goose-bumps as if pheromones were wafted into the auditorium.
The pacing, after the initial slog, is completely masterful – slowly building up to an earth-shattering climax that has proved more than a little divisive. The original ending, so I hear, is even more disturbing – but I’ll have to see that before I believe it. Thankfully, as well, Schults handles this like a true pro – so that we don’t even notice he’s doing it in the first place. Because the plot takes some weird turns, and because the crux of the storyline is constantly shifting, it’s not clear where we’re heading and what the destination will be at any point in the narrative, so the build-up feels natural and unforced.
All this is fantastic stuff, but what really sold It Comes at Night for me in the end was how it makes the viewer search the screen for clues. Whether it’s the edges of the picture, the eyes of the characters, cracks of light under doors, or movement in a still forest, Schults is always encouraging a deeper look. For reasons that I’ll likely discuss in another article, the dimensions of the picture are incredibly important to unlocking its secrets. These little details, some calculated to be felt and some to be explicitly noticed, really elevate the film to another level beyond what we call ‘the cinematic experience’: to some meta-level where form delineates the narrator, and their state of mind.
Even if you hated It Comes at Night: thought it was boring, unoriginal, and uneventful, you couldn’t argue that it’s not insanely beautiful. Every shot is calculated for maximum impact: handheld or static, symmetrical or organic, light or dark. The forest has always been an aesthetically pleasing space – but here it’s taken to extremes: torchlight bouncing off lush green and dead white; and fires staining the murk with an orange glow. Schults’ knack for Kubrickian symmetry also makes itself known - with the house often filmed in Steadicam, walls and corners converge in sync as we move forward to windows and doors. Iconography is also central: a blood-red door signifies the portal to dangerous unknown; void-like black eyes delineate the disease (as does a signature black sludge); and dreams are defined by lens types. It’s a brave and smart way to do things – and one that most definitely pays off.
Now seems as good a time as any to address the backlash. Props to A24 for releasing a fucking incredible movie with considerable risk; spending a ton on promoting it; and making the marketing look absolutely stunning. But, just as Universal did with Crimson Peak; and Bold with Drive, they’ve sold moviegoers the wrong movie. Scroll up a bit, and look at that poster – what a poster! It’s beautiful, threatening, and bold. But, most of all, especially when combined with the title, it overtly suggests ‘horror movie’. If you decide to watch the trailer, it uses all of the scary-movie imagery in the entire film (and even some stuff that isn’t in the film). If you decide to read the reviews, especially the early ones, they’re 5-star rave-pieces, sound-biting about terror and sleepless nights – sound-bites that have made their way into the UK posters and TV-spots.
|Yes, it's still scary...|
These aren’t entirely unrepresentative at the end of the day – It Comes at Night is certainly the breed of horror that was once defined as ‘psychological thriller’. But, at the same time, it feels like a deliberate white lie to sell it as a carnival spookfest to a legion of blockbuster-obsessed moviegoers. A24 may be a high water-mark of quality but it’s also a company that takes small, independent movies and tries to sell them to the masses: there’s always going to be some misfires.
It Comes at Night is an incredible piece of work, but it’s unfortunately been hampered by mismarketing. Although slow at times, Trey Edward Schults’s uniquely harrowing thriller is terrifying: not because of jumpcares or cheap tricks, and not because of the evil lurking in the woods – but because it shows how good men can be monsters, and the bleak consequences that entail when the boundaries of society fall.
|It Comes at Night gets 4 stars!|