With trends bleeding their way into the cinema and bringing in audiences by the drove, one such trend is the Post-Apocalyptic sub-genre. With the television series The Walking Dead and films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and I Am Legend, people are excited or at least intrigued and maybe even suspicious of these visions of a future that is a little less prosperous than the more colourful examples envisaged in films such as The Fifth Element and Her.
With first-time director Trey Edward Shults’ film It Comes At Night, this trend continues, albeit in a contained and focused chamber-piece that concentrates less on the depiction of the condition of the world, than on the human condition and its degradation over time as a result of said doomed circumstances.
What this doomed world pertains to is the viral-infested environment that we find ourselves in, within the film. It is in this environment that we meet Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Surviving off of rations and living strictly to the rules established by Paul, this family is surviving stably within a considerably unstable ecosphere. However, all foundations are shaken when a stranger (Christopher Abbott), accompanied by his wife and child (Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner), stumble across Paul and his family’s dwelling: a large house, deep within a forest.
What ensues is an intense character drama that is more ambiguous and respectable to the audience’s own narrative understanding than many a contemporary movie. While many will wonder how this could be after all the film’s marketing made it seem like it were a straight-up horror, please readjust your expectations. It Comes At Night is horrifying, but in a way that is a far-cry from the supernatural efforts of, say, James Wan’s The Conjuring. Instead, the film owes a lot to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in terms of the developing dread of its enclosed character interaction: while the exterior threat of the virus is forever in our minds, as with the characters, the true horror is that of the human mind and the way that language and circumstance can drive people apart, in ways violent and otherwise.
This aspect of the production is most prominent within Shults’ original script, which is precise and underplayed, teasing out ambiguous yet intrinsically human dialogue: Shults’ script is infected with suspicious syntax and unreliable inflections, never providing an obvious argument or signposted plot reveal, meaning you can never be too sure who is telling the truth. The characterisation has a positive influence on the film in this way. We learn little about the back stories of our characters, save for a few details such as Paul’s previous profession. What this achieves is that it enables the audience to pass unbiased judgements on the characters’ motivations, placing us in the mind-set of Paul and his family. Rather than inform us as to who we should side with, the film creates an open atmosphere that forces our hand in playing out events in our head. This is where the aforementioned horror of the film lies. As our narrative reaches its climax, we come to our own conclusions and subsequently encourage acts that could be considered questionable. Working to the film’s rather bleak aesthetic, it subjects our conscience to a ruthless trial: causing us to judge the rights and wrongs of a society without rules and regulations. Gone are Kantian ethics and Rousseau’s Social Contract, anything goes in this future and it is refreshing that the film establishes this neutral and ambiguous morality to encourage cognitive participation from the audience, for better or for worse, in terms of how we accept what it says about our status as a race.
This uncertainty of definition receives its most thought-provoking translation in the form of a plethora of dream sequences that take place across the film, delving deep into the subconscious paranoia of Travis and his repressed feelings on the situations that he is facing. There is a strong Freudian/Lacanian subtext to the film, for those who look for it, in terms of the displaced fear present within the language of the dreams that are presented to us. Short and succinct, these scenes provide vital emotional nudity, a rarity for a film that all but avoids any clarity in terms of human reasoning and incentive. Travis is our best bet for understanding how this apocalyptic future has affected him, and the paranoia that begins to affect him will disturb you also.
These scenes are assisted by some stellar camerawork from Drew Daniels. The measured, patient and static cinematography creates a sense of entrapment, making you feel the claustrophobia of the situation, let alone the setting. Additionally, the clandestine fluctuation between the 2.40:1 aspect ratio of the real-time moments as opposed to the 2.75:1 aspect ratio of Travis’ dream sequences, is an intelligent tactic. While the larger aspect ratio invites us into the scenes more openly, causing us to feel more vulnerable and thus paranoid about what twists and turns could occur, the reduced aspect ratio subconsciously hones in our perceptual vision as we search for the visual clues and cues within the dream sequences, in order to uncover the dark and repressed secrets hidden within.
Furthermore, the score from Brian McOmber is ominous and even a tad native in its use of percussion instruments such as the drums and guitar. This gives the film an underlying thread of dread that palpitates through the veins of the narrative, in addition to giving it a raw, primordial feeling, processing the violent and paranoid tendencies of the plot as natural and thus embedded within all of us. It is reminiscent of Mica Levi’s unnerving work for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, a film that similarly struggled with the foundations of human emotion and sociological interaction, which can only be a positive in my book.
And yet, in spite of the thoughtful yet hard-hitting principles of the film’s narrative and its technical construction, I did find the final moments to be a little weak and lacking in the desired, or even necessary, fulfilment for what had preceded it. While the last third features a sequence that contains the most intense filmmaking and storytelling you will see this year, it ultimately settles in a quick resolution that fails to address any meaningful dialogue or context on the aftermath of such an emotionally afflicting event. Where the film appeared to be reaching its catharsis, the release of this sentiment never really comes to fruition, leaving one feeling a little perplexed and craving a little more substance and finalisation.
In spite of this, the presence of the film will haunt you for days on end. Do not mistaken this film for the horror that has been advertised: this is a far-cry from the supernatural thrillers of recent years. Even in spite of my comparisons to Romero’s classic zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead, this is no creature feature. Instead, it is a deeply unsettling look at the mistrustful temperament that has manifested itself within all of us. To sum it up in somewhat of a cynical way (not unlike the film itself), it is less about the horror of possibility than it is about the horror of the now, the recognition that we are all equally capable of being terrible, as we are of being rational and kind.