There are quite a few films driven by atmosphere alone rather than narrative. The magic alchemy is when the two blend. THE WITCH and even last year’s THE MONSTER (both horror-tinged films released by A24), admirably achieved varying degrees of success doing so. Now comes writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ psychological chiller with a horror bent, IT COMES AT NIGHT. Unfortunately, it relies so heavily on cultivating atmospheric tension, the character-driven dramatics collapse under its weight. At its simplest form, this is highfalutin hokum.
During post-apocalyptic times, Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and dog Stanley (Mikey) live in a spacious but remote cabin in the woods. A mysterious, rapid-onset disease has spread, causing societal breakdown. The foreboding stench of plague and death is thick in the atmosphere. It looms, suffocating, clinging to the air, practically filling up any empty space between the cabin walls. Travis’ grandpa Bud (David Pendleton) has already succumbed to the sickness, so it’s no surprise when the family’s new world order is again challenged upon the arrival of another family in need: Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).
What are we when civility is taken away? Who are we when society breaks down? Where does humanity, kindness, trust and hope go in a time of chaos? Is what’s stamped into our DNA the real sickness? How horrific can guilt get manifesting itself in visions? While Shults’ film is not afraid to ask any of these deep-reaching, philosophical questions, it does make you wonder why they were asked in the first place. Not that it needs to, but his art doesn’t provide any answers (comforting or otherwise) either. It’s bleak, dark and wallows in abject sadness, which would be acceptable if there was a point to it all.
Altogether, this feels slightly reductive of similarly-toned, thought-provoking works like LORD OF THE FLIES, THE THING, THE MIST or even THE WALKING DEAD. The dynamics between the characters treads too lightly when Shults should plunge into the depths of their madness and paranoia. For a movie that’s supposed to tap into our collective fears, it’s ironically afraid to go there. Their actions are assuredly understandable; however, these characters are threadbare when it comes to compelling personalities or traits. I can appreciate the auteur’s desire for efficiency, but it doesn’t totally work. What makes me care about these people? Outside of Travis’ compassion and guilt (over his grandfather’s death and the sexual attraction he feels towards Kim), I can’t point to much. It takes more than just pretentious techniques (the teen dreams in extreme letterbox!) or a good production designer (Karen Murphy’s work here is genuinely incomparable) to get its points across. Lingering shots of gnarled tree roots ripped from the ground are Shults’ motif of choice, but it’s not scary. Neither are the gratuitous shots of them in gas masks (which pop on and off willy nilly). Cheap jump scares like banging on an ominous blood red door (the only way in and out of the house) and various loud noises to punctuate other attention-getting visuals also pepper the picture.
The third act is troubling to say the least. Shults continues to mess with the aspect ratio, possibly hinting at the barely distinguishable blur between Travis’ nightmares and reality. Character motivations don’t just get murky – they go pitch black. The end lingers far too long in the aftermath of their decision when, faced with a similar call at the beginning, they didn’t appear to have done much. Much like the rest of the film, there’s no surprise either. The payoff is rendered null.
Perhaps the core group that typically trip all over themselves to praise A24’s works will love this film. And there’s no disputing IT COMES AT NIGHT falls right in line with the company’s off-kilter brand identity. That said, this won’t be for everyone and may even divide its audience.
2 out of 5
IT COMES AT NIGHT opens on June 9.