Horror films sure have been finding their fair share of critical acclaim. From the socially pensive Get Out to the unimaginably brutal The Survivalist, horror fans have been bestowed with a bevy of great horror films that work tirelessly to appease cinephiles everywhere. Whether it’s well-developed characterizations or sweepingly mesmerizing camera work, some of the most recent horror entries have showcased a strong cinematic eye that have seldom been seen in the pejorative cinematic category.
Thankfully A24 seems to have an eye for this sort of cinematic splendor, having produced almost eleven horror films since its inception in 2012. And seeing as the studio won a string of Oscars last year with its runaway hit, Moonlight, it’s surprising that A24 has invested so much time and effort in what is a seemingly disparaging genre. But it seems that the nascent studio has understood that filmic joy can be found in any category or genre, with many of the last few years’ greatest films having come out of the New York City-based studio. It appears that there is no sense of mediocrity with the staff at A24, who work tirelessly to maintain the quality that it established right from the get-go.
That quality has thankfully continued in Trey Edward Shults’ unnerving It Comes at Night. And while some may point out that the movie is more of a psychological thriller than a horror, it is exactly that meandering approach to the expected cinematic tropes that leaves one reeling with cinephilic delight. There’s no categorical road map here. Shults is taking us on a brutally honest and disturbing ride that sets a reality and sticks to it. There are no second chances, no do-overs. The diegetic world is planted and the consequences are dire. There’s no way to know what will occur and at what time. And that may be perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the brilliantly disturbing It Comes at Night.
Thematically similar to his SXSW-winning directorial debut Krisha, Shults’ newest feature also explores the underlying affective responses to unwanted destructive forces. From paranoia and deceit to mistrust and the power (or lack thereof) of family ties, It Comes at Night yet again hones in the modernist calamity of losing one’s humanity in the wake of a disaster. But while Krisha explored these themes through the lens of a Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong, It Comes at Night does so through the eyes of a family reeling from a worldwide cataclysmic event.
Telling the tale of a family trying to survive a pathogenic disaster, Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) lead an ascetic life in what is now a desolate world. They are all they have left of this world. But when outsider Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home in search of supplies, Paul cannot help but showcase a rare sense of decency by inviting Will, his wife Kim, (Riley Keough) and their son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to stay and live among them. But soon enough, mistrust and paranoia begin to take hold, leading both families to question their social normalcy and dignity.
At its heart, It Comes at Night challenges patriarchal assertions of dominance and familial protection. “Where does humanity begin and where does it stop?” seems to be the driving proposition of Shults inquiry into families pushed to the edge. How far can one family go to protect itself without destroying themselves in the process? It’s an underpinning question that comes up more sincerely and realistically in his previous film, Krisha. But what It Come at Night triumphs over Shults previous film is its need to balance itself on the same fraught borders of humanity, albeit with much more at stake than an aunt who has relapsed and ruined dinner. There is no two-ways about it–whatever happens in this film equals life-or-death. It’s a terrifying prospect but one that is grounded in modernist fidelity.
Perhaps what is most satisfying about It Comes at Night is that it showcases the tendencies of an increasingly sophisticated and maturing filmmaker. Before Shults found the opportunity to helm his own projects, the Austin-native worked extensively on Terrence Malick’s most brazenly experimental films, including The Tree of Life, Song to Song and Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. And it’s clear that the Malick mentee had taken a few pages out of the auteur’s book as the characteristically Lubezki-led cinematography seems to have found its way into both Krisha and It Comes at Night. It’s a wonderful visual splendor that inspires, cajoles and frightens–all at the same time. But what makes this film such an astounding visuality is the fact that cinematographer Drew Daniels propelled what he had learnt in Krisha. While Daniels dipped his toes into the Lubezki waters with Krisha, he cannonballed right into it in It Comes at Night.
From the low angle tracking shots to the reliance on pans and sweeping camera movements, It Comes at Night is a spectacular visual feast that is as much narratively driven as it is visually. As with Shults earlier film, there is a poignant connection with family and legacy, one that is showcased by the long take tracking shots of hallways adorned with family portraits. But while Krisha dealt with this theme in the subjectivity of contemporary life, It Comes at Night plunges the audience into that same dilemma of legacy with an overt sense of dread, despair, and quite frankly, finality. There is no turning back now–no second chances. Life is at an end and every decision carries with it an immense sense of weight.
It seems that it is no coincidence that Paul is a former history teacher. He is versed in the cruel intentions of man and the unfortunate outcomes of a world preoccupied with itself. Perhaps that is why he has an intuitive approach to survivalism, having realized the inherent barbarity of man through his studies (and one that is showcased in the film through the overt references to Pieter Brueghel’s 1562 painting, The Triumph of Death). It is the reason why he and his family have survived as long as they have–but it is also the cause of their isolation.
But what comes to conflict with Paul’s distrust and realization of man’s singular egoism is his son, Travis’ sense of humanity. He is the one yearning to discover a new world, one that is not marred with distrust, despair and death. As he creeps and spies around the house, he learns of new familial relationships, one that are not dictated by strict rules, patriarchal complacency, or any other sense of dread. It is a new world, one that he cannot help but yearn to be involved in. And yet, tragedy befalls them, leading to an uncertain future, and more poignantly an uncertain understanding of future expressions of common decency.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
With the release of It Comes at Night and Krisha before it, Shults has finished his two-film contractual obligations to A24. Which is a shame, for Shults’ collaborations with the acclaimed studio has led to some of the better independent cinema in recent memory–particularly in the horror/thriller genres. Whether it is the immensely satisfying narrative or the sweepingly beautiful camera work, Shults is a masterclass filmmaker that is increasingly showcasing his intent to blow away his competition. Here’s to hoping that Shults and the free-reign A24 come back together in the near future to bring us yet another bonafide hit.