Nothing is Fair in the Apocalypse: It Comes at Night Review
[There’s always spoilers.]
“Can’t Believe I wasted fifteen dollars on that.”
“What a bunch of shit.”
I sat in my not-so-snug theater seat grinning to myself as I listened to irate moviegoers complain about how stupid and confusing Trey Edward Shults’s latest film It Comes at Night was. I’ve seen this kind of frustration sweep a crowd after movies like, The VVitch and Under the Skin, and about five minutes into this one I figured there were going to be a lot of unhappy folks when the credits rolled.
There were and I was not one of them.
I wasn’t one of them because this is the type of film I love. A simple story of a family hiding out in the forest to avoid a devastating virus that’s presumably wiped out most of the country, and the lengths they’ll go to in order to keep each other safe. After holding a home intruder hostage for a day in order to see if he can be trusted, the father agrees to let the man’s family stay with them in exchange for their help.
It Comes at Night is a film with incredible focus on character and building tension. It isn’t a film that’s concerned with the bigger picture or big set pieces. There are no scientists huddled together trying to develop a cure before mankind bites it and there’s no montage of people getting sick set to a voiceover explaining the history of the virus.
Instead we see the stress that Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) go through just trying to survive off the radar, and how paranoid this lifestyle has made them. No one goes out at night. There’s only one way in and out of the house, and Paul keeps the key around his neck at all times. They’re stuck in close quarters, anyone of them can get sick at any time, and no one knows what the hell is really going on. Add to the mix Will (Christopher Abbott) and his family who have been on the road looking for shelter and you have so much tension you’re practically gripping the arm rests for an hour and a half.
Probably the tensest moment isn’t even one that stands out the most—especially after Paul and Will are ambushed in the woods. Both men are sitting up late talking about what they did before everything went downhill. It’s the type of conversation two buddies might have after a long day’s work, but when Will mentions that he’s an only child (after telling Paul that they’d previously lived with his brother) the air in the room changes. It’s a quick and simple sentence that unravels the trust Paul initially had for him, and when Paul calls him out on it, in a friendly way, Will’s bumbling response only makes him seem even more suspect.
A lot of reviews and discussions seem to revolve around how this film depicts humans becoming monsters (metaphorically, of course). I’m not buying it. That might apply when your protagonist is a serial killer offing serial killers or a one-man death-machine on a path of revenge, but It Comes at Night blurs the lines and forces you to understand where both families are coming from. Rather than painting Paul as a domineering authoritative figure, and Will as a complete liar, both men are just trying to do right by the people they love. “You’re just trying to protect your family,” Will says tied to the tree, “And I understand that, but don’t let mine die because of it.” So even when Will turns on the family that let his in, and walks Paul down the stairs at gun point saying, “We just want what’s fair,” we may not agree with it, but we understand the motives behind it—even if there is no such thing as fair during times like this.
What I’m getting at is it’s almost impossible to root for one side. No one here is truly a monster. They’re just trying to survive in a new, lawless world, and although the end climax is some of the saddest and most bleak storytelling I’ve seen in a very long time, I want to avoid bringing it up here because it has to be experienced.
The struggle I had with this film is that some of the dream sequences are almost too vague in what they’re symbolizing, primarily when Travis is walking slowly through the forest in search of the family dog that’s run off. The atmosphere in this scene is top-notch, but when he reaches the area where he overhears two animals fighting it left me wondering just what-in-the-hell it was supposed to mean. It stands out because the rest of the nightmares all involve the disease in some way. In one Travis looks up to see his grandfather sitting across from him, black goo leaking from his mouth, and in another, Kim (Riley Keough), sits atop of him only to kiss him with a mouthful of viral discharge, while the forest walk dream feels misplaced and hints that there might be an actual monster roaming around.
The film could’ve used another half an hour to flesh out more of the dynamic between the families. Showing how they maneuver their differences to achieve the same goal and grow closer would have made the ending even more devastating. Also, there’s an odd moment of sexual attraction between Kim and Travis that might’ve just been meant to show the latter as an awkward teenager, but the way the scene is shot and the banter between them borders on flirting.
It’s unfortunate that the crowd I saw this with wanted more jumpscares and jangly walking ghosts that sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies when they bumble down dark hallways, but at the same time, I’m stoked that more films like this are getting wide releases.
That said, there is no satisfying ending to this film. It doesn’t wrap anything up and there is no resolution, but It Comes at Night isn’t about the race for a cure, finding the last safe space left, rebuilding a community, or about how we’re all monsters. It’s about fear. It’s about rough decisions and what we do when pushed into a corner.
It’s about being human.
Anthony Trevino is the author of the New Bizarro Author Series 2015-16 novella King Space Void published by Eraserhead Press, the horror comic Fruition, and also made an appearance in the True Detective tribute anthology Walk Hand in Hand into Extinction from CLASH books.