It Comes At Night – 2017
Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keogh, David Pendleton
It’s been a long time since I have been drawn into a film like this. The lens has a romance with the images portrayed to the extent that our eyes are drawn into every image, as though lives depend on it. Through the first hour, we are building up to something which lives beyond the confines of a beautiful boarded up house in the woods.
The dread starts with the opening image of It Comes At Night. Grandpa Bud (Pendleton), suffering from the throngs of an absolutely horrid disease is taken out into the woods and very kindly and crudely put out of his misery. By the time we get to see the first images of the haunted eyes of his teenage grandson, Travis (Harrison, Jr.), we are transfixed. So much misery at such a tender age cannot be distorted through the reflection of flames off of the gas mask he wears as a form of protection from what their world has become.
The family includes his father Paul (Edgerton), mother Sarah (Ejogo) and Grandpa’s dog Stanley. It’s quite obvious by the precautions taken that this family is significantly overcome by the events taking place around them. And although there is no real indication of what it is that brought the disease harming the world outside into Grandpa Bud, Paul is pretty sure he’s worked out a magic formula for keeping it out.
There is one entrance to the house, protected by two doors. This is much like an airlock might function in a spaceship. The outer door is locked carefully and only Paul has the key. If someone breaches that, there is another locked door painted red that might help keep whatever it is at bay until the family has a chance to do something about it.
What happened to the other sides of the house? What is preventing someone from plucking off the boards for any room at ground level? These are questions that only come up later for the viewer. For Travis and his family, there is only this one door through which anything goes.
The story succeeds most when we experience it through Travis. He is a young man whose life and family look hopeful in pictures on the wall. We see him go routinely to an empty room upstairs from which he hears many things happening in the house. He lives there a lot, form the look of it. Travis also experiences the trepidation that any young man tall enough to look like an adult but clearly not ready for the move into that stage. He defers to his father, who is really just as lost to all of this as his son. He just goes first.
Then there are the nightmares. Travis’ fears come alive in them, and they push him along. What is causing these nightmares? Do they portend the future or something lurking in the present.
The introduction of other people into this equation doesn’t start out well. It’s clear that Paul was waiting for a cataclysm to arrive, even if it looks like he is unsure how to live in a world while raising a family when it does. Where his caution ends and the danger begins is the question. Meanwhile Travis, with his kind heart, competes with the strain of a teenage body and everything that would push one to feel and want to do.
Harrison, Jr. is an incredible actor caught in his prime by a director who is a devotee to Terrance Mallick in the best way possible. Every image of young Travis resonates in a way that brings feeling to the forefront. We want this boy to live in a world beyond what he is trapped in now, even though we are given plenty of hints that this world is not a good place.
I am leaving the other characters out of this review because if you have a chance at enjoying the movie, it will be best that you discover them for yourself. The story has a chance at greatness for much of its running time, and then it falls completely off of the cliff.
What is presented gives the feeling Shults is a writer and director who enjoyed much cinema in the post Easy Rider and pre-Star Wars era. Most of the acclaimed films of this period are low budget, pessimistic and dire. What is not evident is that he understands what it was that made the endings of those films work. If he does know it, he does not show it here. Somewhere in the third act, the film starts to fall apart. We get details that conflict or we are experiencing a mirage experienced by one or more of the characters. What happens to Stanley only makes sense if we can believe that Paul and Sarah’s typical hyper-vigilance took the night off.
The performances in this film are exceptional. Each plays their role exquisitely as the script will allow. Harrison, Jr. was completely transfixing to me for much of the film. I found it very easy to identify with Travis in the ways our paths through adolescence were different as much as the ways we were alike.
The camera work, especially early on and definitely in relation to Travis, is exceptional. This is not novice work. It’s someone who knows how powerful silence and images can be.
Shults is an incredible talent who needs to find a story editor. Several points in the discussion between the family and outsiders find it very difficult to believe either of the parties understand where it is that they live. Places are so vaguely described it is distracting. Then to have this carry over a span of 50 miles, presumably on foot? It’s a ridiculous plot hole that punches holes the feeling of being consumed by the rest of what his beautiful camera work is giving us.
The theater crowd I was with to a person described feelings of incredible disappointment at the film as the credits began to roll. I don’t recall ever being in a theater that had such a collective exhale of disappointment. So much did patrons match my sentiments about the ending particularly, I was so surprised by the notion that each of us experienced the story the same way that it overrode any feelings that presented itself in the last 30 minutes. The most succinct of these notions was expressed by a young man 3 rows in front of me as he got up, stretched and looked at his equally hapless girlfriend.
“I thought this was supposed to be scary.”
(**1/2 out of *****)