A24 films have offered some indie gems of the last few years, here are a few I’ve either admired or just plain loved; Locke, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, Room, The Witch, Green Room, The Lobster and the Best Picture winning Moonlight.
The Witch was a critical darling but didn’t impress general audiences due to it’s slow building tension and lack of jump scare factor. It still managed to do modestly at the box office, recouping it’s budget 10 times over. It was marketed as the conventional horror we’re used to nowadays and because the trailers tried to sell it as such, many left disappointed or just plain unimpressed.
It Comes At Night seems to follow a similar fate as the audience I watched it with was generally unsatisfied with the moody atmosphere and how open ended it was. There isn’t much excitement to be had per say. I’ve become comfortable with the fact that a horror flick or this case a psychological terror thriller should at the very least unsettle you if not scare you.
A straightforward narrative, we follow a family of 3, Joel Edgerton’s Paul, Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah and Kelvin Harrison Jr’s Travis as they reside in a woodlands home in the midst of an apocalypse of an unnamed plague. They themselves probably don’t know the origin of this disease. It’s assumed they’ve been living like this for a while as they’ve made a system of sorts to ensure a peaceful and sustainable future for themselves. They wear gas masks and wield shotguns/rifles to arm themselves for anyone or anything. They seem to get by, until an intruder comes into their home who seemingly just wants to gather resources for himself and his family without malice towards Paul’s. Eventually both family’s meet and manage to build a routine where everyone is comfortable in each others company.
There are many instances to support the films level of ambiguity. For starters, we know as much as the characters do, it’s very scarce on exposition, there are subtle shifts between nightmares and reality and a tight run time that rings true to its obscure nature.
What I admire about indie cinema is that a filmmakers style can truly blossom, small movies with big ideas and making the best with what little you have. Since Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, I’ve been fascinated with how a filmmaker, young filmmakers especially can sooner realise their artistic vision and the writing process can prove as much a journey for them as well as their characters. In doing so, the emotion they try to evoke through their characters can prove authentic and relatable for the audience.
Writer/Director Trey Shults drew the experiences from the relationship with his father and childhood, particularly in a scene where Sarah is bidding farewell to her much infected father who is ready to be put out of his misery. He was interested in people’s anxiety rather than the monster or entity afoot. I was desperate for clues and Shults leaves hardly anything in the foreground for us to latch onto. The cinematography is restrained and static much of the time. The movie preys on our fear of knowing next to nothing, centre framing is used to avert our eyes nowhere else but the characters and the sound design ought to leave us in a perpetual state of anxiety. The jump scares are scarce as well as the violence as the overwhelming sense of dread is something Shults looks to capitalize on.
The jump scares that did come, I laughed at. Not because they were empty or unnecessary fright but I could see how those less susceptible to being frightened may consider it startling.
Like the title suggests, it keeps us in the dark. we expect that whatever sinister schemes are afoot are sure to come at the dead of night. This proved to be frustrating or wasted for my audience however as one couple walked out moments before the movies climax. When it ended, some cheered “YES!” or “What was that?” or “Thank god”.
There doesn’t seem to be anything inherently evil afoot, much of the films power lies in the hallucinatory atmosphere, amplified by an eerie, somewhat dreamlike score from Brain McOmber. These are essentially good people but more and more the tension between the families is strained as they begin to rationalize on how best to maintain unison and not allow the impending paranoia cloud their best judgement.
Edgerton seems to be making a pattern in his work for portraying characters that are not innately devious like in Black Mass. He has a sorrowful, almost wounded demeanour that works in contrast to the seemingly menacing proceedings. The men are best characterized as the women are pretty much underwritten. The relationship between Edgertons Paul and Christopher Abbot’s Will goes through much of an arc than anyone else. Travis is the most disturbed and disturbing out of everyone, the director himself has related much of the fears he’d been encountered through Travis.
The climax was pretty devastating but the ending was pretty abrupt. In the end though, I didn’t feel as much an urge to revisit those unanswered questions. Certainly something I’d recommend overall I didn’t quite feel anchored by the emotional weight as I’d wanted it to. Hopefully my arm will be twisted by genre enthusiasts in the future and more discussion will arouse further reading into the full insidiousness of this terror flick.
Shults asks in an interview that intrigued me however ,”can we retain our humanity in the worst places in the worst times?”