“A dream itself is but a shadow.” It Comes at Night (Film Review)

It may seem a little pretentious to open a review with a quote from Act II, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but this introspective observation from the Danish prince sums up perfectly what this film is about and what it appears to be on the surface; indeed, It Comes at Night seems to be this year’s unheralded horror masterpiece-at least so far, anyway. From A24, the distribution company behind Robert Eggers’ excellent, dread-filled horror The Witch (2015) and production company Animal Kingdom, the same company behind 2014’s It Follows, director David Robert Mitchell’s terrific horror debut, It Comes at Night situates itself masterfully- almost deliberately-between the two; the level of dread conjured up throughout the film is unreal: dancing shadows, unseen forces at work, footsteps crushingly loud on wooden floors, and half-ajar doors lending all the time towards the atmosphere of unbearable tension throughout perfectly mimics the claustrophobic darkness of Eggars’ film, while the fever-dream cinema-scope of the dream sequences recall the wide-angle and slow motion phantasmagoria of Mitchell’s. If there’s one idea director Trey Edward Shults proves he can ram down our throats harder than any other then it is certainly this: there is something definitely coming. But what?

Taking place in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of a violent, virulent disease, It Comes at Night revolves around Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they try to survive day by day in their house out in the woods. Right from the off it is clear that Paul is the patriarchal head of this family; all decisions go through him, all rules are enforced by his will, and it almost seems as if he is guarding the family in a suspicious sense rather than a protective one. One night, after a break-in, another survivor, Will (Christopher Abbot) is discovered, and Paul is informed that this survivor has a wife and child too, back on the farm they are staying at, and that if Paul allows them to stay, they will bring their livestock and contribute towards the upkeep of the house.

All seems to go well, bar a few setbacks, with both families establishing a somewhat utopian existence in the country as masters of nature, with Will teaching Travis how to chop wood and Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) helping Sarah with washing, cooking, and the general running of the house. It seems at this point that the film approaches the optimum point of the post-apocalyptic narrative where a kind of harmony has been established; no discord or conflict or in-fighting occurs, and the human condition, despite the destruction that facilitated said harmony, appears to have re-established itself as a force for good again. Paul has only one rule to uphold this harmony, however: that the red door at the back of the house stays locked and shut at all times at night unless they all go outside, and even then, he is the only one who has they keys. Eventually however, as we all know, we love stopping to look at metaphorical car crashes, and so the most intriguing part of all of these narratives is the pride before the fall: the point we are all waiting for is when it falls apart utterly.

It isn’t long before tension begins to build, suspicions begin to mount, and accusations begin getting thrown around, and before you know it, the proceedings descend into madness and chaos and guns begin to get pointed. What is absolutely fantastic about the film is its lack of patronisation; it implies throughout without ever really explaining. I must admit I find this approach to be utterly and welcomingly refreshing in today’s film climate and culture. To see a film where no real outcome is derived from any of the narrative points except honest heartbreak, tragedy, and uncertainty is wholly revelatory and (if we’re brutally honest) rare nowadays. Much of this ambiguity revolves around the dreams (or nightmares would probably be more accurate) of Travis. Each night Travis goes to sleep, the screen fades to black and we enter the dream world, where potentially everything is relevant and symbolically active. Entering a cinema-scope realm of horror and uncertainty, Shults’ and cinematographer Drew Daniels’ stunning photography exerts just the right amount of darkness and light, shadow and substance, reality and unreality that can and do occur in dreams. Through the narrative device of Travis’s dreams, we come to encounter the idea that the infection is not the only thing that comes for them at night, but that their own demons will; Travis’s sadness and fear of death through his constant visions of his ailing and infected grandfather (whose death we glimpse at the start of the film) are the only dreams we see, but I surmise it is most likely the other tenants of the house are undoubtedly having introspectively similar nightmares reflecting their grief, sorrow, guilt, uncertainties, and fears, we just never see them. Travis is very much our window into this world: when he is told off by his father for running too far into the woods, or experiencing a weird kind of seduction from Kim in the middle of the night, we sympathise and reflect upon Travis’s plight; after all he’s a teenager going through puberty and simultaneously experiencing death and disease all around him. How much more sorry could we feel for him?

I think that the ambiguity is where a lot of ‘casual’ viewers will unfortunately switch off, however. While not by any means an undecipherable movie, It Comes at Night does represent a step forward in the ambiguous horror picture, akin to The Witch and It Follows (and even older fare such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), and Richard Bates Jr.’s underrated Excision (2012)), and therefore I think trying something relatively unorthodox such as ambiguous narrative will alienate a few people. It’s a shame, as well, that a lot of cinemagoers, through no fault of their own, are shown too much clear-cut film nowadays, as it dilutes the very fabric and narrative potentialities that cinema can endure. This isn’t the kind of outlook you’d get from one of Michael Bay’s Transformers films (or indeed, any Bay film, regardless of quality) or the action films of the 1980s, and so I believe there will be a divide among fans of horror. Maybe I am proselytizing somewhat though; this might be the renaissance horror desperately needs in today’s endless conveyor belt of remakes, sequels and reboots. After all it took 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982) quite a few years to achieve the status they enjoy nowadays, so maybe the same will happen here. Then again, it might not-it matters little in the consideration of It Comes at Night’s quality and impact.

On a personal level, I haven’t been this tense in a long time while viewing a horror film. My favourite horror picture of all time, George A. Romero’s magisterial Dawn of the Dead (1978) kindles this perfectly blended cocktail of dread and suspense like no other film, while simultaneously finding a pinch of social commentary to add to the mix. It seems I’ve found the next one on the list. Shults drives us along with just enough narrative momentum to keep the action flowing, while constantly stonewalling us with the power of our own interpretations, something even Romero doesn’t do (Romero places his own ideas and social commentary over the action; in effect, the allegory, metaphor-call it what you will-has been established already: Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism and the cannibalisation that this rampant capitalism can encapsulate, only the zombies represent any chance at multiple cultural readings).

Part of the reason the two families fall out with one another is because Will and Kim wish to leave with their son suddenly, for no foreseeable reason, while Paul and Sarah naturally assume that one of them are infected and are trying to hide it. Travis insists they are not and is asked to stay in Paul’s room while his mother and father deal with the issue. Without ruining anything, the story’s third act proceeds so as we don’t ever get our answer. Were Will and Kim and their son infected? Or were they running because Paul, Sarah, and Travis were? There is no apparent explanation. Similarly, other questions are raised: did Will know the men who ambushed Paul and himself on the road? He seems to hesitate when asked if he did, but we never get our answer. Why does he mention that he is an only child when Paul proceeds to talk to him about what he did before the outbreak, even though he insisted he and Kim came from his brother’s place? Who delivers the corpse of the family dog to the door in the middle of the night, despite the red door being closed? More importantly, who opened it and why? What does Travis see in his final dream sequence, in which he looks utterly and dejectedly terrified? You guessed it: we don’t get our answer.

This uncertainty, in terms of style and narrative, drives home perhaps two of the most primal fears of all: we fear what we do not understand, and we fear the breakdown of our families. If we know nothing, we can perceive little of reassurance, nearly nothing in terms of comprehension, and this scares us-to death in some cases. Perhaps this is what the inevitably over-analysed red door represents: not the split between conscious and unconscious, as the Freudians would interpret, or the entry to the world of death, as the philosopher would muse, but a very clear warning (the door is red, after all) of the danger of uncertainty, in which all appears as the same (as in the woods that border them) undecipherable mass. Perhaps, in this case the bard was right: all is as a dream, wreathed in shadow. On the subject of family, it would appear Shults is already acquainted with this theme, as his previous debut feature Krisha (2015) deals with the conflict families can create when an ex-addict returns to her family for dinner after many years apart only to find they are not sympathetic to her inner demons and struggles. Horror has a long and sordid history dealing with the destruction of the family unit, or indeed the corruption it can engender, indeed, the genre’s most defining examples of this range from The Exorcist (1973) to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), right through to trashy classics such as Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1972) and even Poe in The House of Usher (1960). Neither theme stands on its own however, and so it is hard to even pinpoint a ‘theme’ singular; both meld together to create the dreamy fusion that ensues.

It Comes at Night faultlessly represents the idea that on the surface all may appear to be as it is, however muddled that may be, but underneath, where the dark penetrates and the light only casts shadows and never illuminates, where we know nothing of the outside world and its reality, and everything about the endless horror of our own minds, it will come and take us. We’re never told what the ‘it’ of the title is, and it’s just as well, because we won’t ever truly know for certain, we can’t, or we will be in that region where dream and shadow lurk unendingly.

Dir: Trey Edward Shults

Scr: Trey Edward Shults

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbot, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison, Jr.

Prd: David Kaplan, Andrea Roa

DOP: Drew Daniels

Music: Brian McOmber

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Run time: 91 minutes

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