By Jack Dignan
It Comes At Night opened in the U.S. a few weeks ago to a rather mixed reception. Critics, for the most part, dug it. It currently sits at a hefty 87% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 7.5/10, but if you ask a lot of the general audience, most hated it. Many complained about its ineffectiveness as a horror movie, even from those who enjoyed the film, and that reaction puzzles me. It’s been cited as being falsely advertised, and a drama more than anything else, but honestly, I didn’t find this to be the case. It Comes At Night is horror at its most unconventional, and I loved it.
Horror doesn’t always have to be jump scare after jump scare, with devils or serial killers coming after the protagonists at every turn. The genre is diverse. It’s usually boiled down to very simple premises, most of which are mimicked and replicated with new scares, but every so often, a film comes along that breaks that apart. They become their own thing. It Comes At Night does just that. The film is a horror movie in the loosest sense, but a horror movie nonetheless. You might not be kept up late at night or forced to put a light on as you drift off to sleep, but when in the moment, seated in a dark auditorium, the film got my blood pumping and my pulse rising.
Nothing is ever as it seems. The plot springs off into different directions at a near constant rate. In a sense, we really follow two protagonists. There’s Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). They, along with mum/wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), live in a secluded house deep into the woodlands, doing their best to survive in a world that’s run its course. Details on the outside world are scarce, but the power seems to have gone, food is low and people are dying from mysterious illnesses. The family keeps to themselves. They maintain and follow a pre-determined set of rules in order to survive, but a complication wedges its way into their lives, and the result could be either a benefit or a hazard.
Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) arrive seeking refuge and water. Where their allegiances lie remain to be seen. It’s a never-ending game of paranoia, lies and a fear of the unknown as the two families untie forces in a world gone to shit. Paul’s perspective on life is twisted and full of mistrust. He picks up on every detail, and makes for a fascinating protagonist in this dark and mysterious thriller that slowly unravels its shocking secrets. Nothing ever feels okay, and the mood and atmosphere of every environment always benefits the scene at hand. It’s not entirely consistent; moments of bonding are necessary but occasionally out of place, but whatever scene’s currently being played works within the moment.
This is not a horror movie in the traditional sense. You have the typical dog barking at nothing and an ever present feeling of danger and unease, but this is a film that doesn’t’ dare dabble in the realm of the supernatural. It’s a realistic, grounded horror film that plays more into your personal, often illogical fears than your fear of undead entities coming to kill you. The film is a nightmare fleshed out into an ambiguously plotted story that dangles answers in front of you without allowing for a proper understanding of what they mean. Things happen that don’t make a lot of sense in the long run, but putting the pieces of the puzzle together is half the fun.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this movie since the credits started rolling. It’s unconventional and open ended. You can take the plot and analyse it for hours, and even then, a logical conclusion may not see the light. I’m yet to read the plot theories I presume are floating around the Internet, but there’s so much to soak in and think about that an answer for everything seems impossible. This is, on the one hand, a clever plot device. The film lingers in your mind and creates a need for discussion. But, as well, it can get a little too ambiguous for its own good. One moment in particular, a moment I won’t spoil, lacks any sense of purpose or explanation. It happens, raising the stakes and tension, but its reasons as to how are severely lacking.
You’re left in the dark, quite literally, with the pieces scattered everywhere. It’s the type of smart, thought provoking cinema that I love, but one that I don’t even think the filmmakers have all the answers too. The film is a nightmarish depiction of the world, fuelled by a literal series of nightmares. Usually, I’m not one to enjoy onslaughts of dream sequences, but here, they served a purpose. They propelled the plot forward and created a bigger picture of what’s really going on, while also managing to scare the shit out of you with its unnerving visuals backed up by one of the year’s creepiest, most melodic and memorable scores so far. A lot of the horror is ripped directly from the visuals, and the camera work and simple set design adds to the overall terror and suspense.
A character-driven, dialogue based horror film is a rare find, but It Comes At Night embraces every aspect of it. Built with a fantastic script, captured with stunning simplicity and acted out through flawless performances, this overly-ambiguous movie doesn’t always mash as well it should, and leaves a little too much for the imagination, but was able to hold my attention from start to finish. The more time spent thinking about it, the more layers I unfold. I love this movie. It’s not perfect, but it’s exactly what you want from sophisticated horror.
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