Hot Take: More hopeless than horror with an ending that leaves you asking yourself, “Why bother?” There’s no payoff and I didn’t lose a second of sleep over the events that transpired.
One thing I expect to happen when watching a horror film is, soon after, I will lose a little bit of sleep over something I’ve seen in it. Even some of the worst horror films have moments that shake my nerves enough to cause me to lose a few minutes of sleep. (Although, to be fair, since I’ve given up caffeine, hardly anything can stop me from sleeping.) Nothing even close to that happens in It Comes At Night, a dark, hopeless, post-apocalyptic horror film that attempts to be more cerebral than visual in its attack on your nerves.
It Comes At Night is unsurprisingly a critical darling. It’s currently sitting at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer. It is one of those movies that is appreciated for what it is not. What it is not is your typical horror movie. There are a few disturbing images and maybe a jump scare or two but the film relies on a bleak tension and paranoia to manufacture dread in the audience. However, it appears that things are too hopeless for our characters to ever really think anything positive can come from their situation without it being completely cheesy or out of place. About half way through the film, as a forward thinking audience member, I knew there wasn’t going to be a conclusion to the film that was satisfying in any way, shape or form.
From a filmmaking side of things, director Trey Edward Shults has a knack for building tension. The slow burn of It Comes At Night, if it were building to a solid payoff, would be very effective. The cast is very effective, also. Joel Edgerton is excellent in the lead role of Paul, a former teacher who has locked his family away in their house which is now a boarded up, deep woods fortress. Even with all of their precautions, the film opens as the family must dispose of the body of Paul’s father-in-law Bud (David Pendleton) who has succumbed to the highly contagious disease that has plagued the cities. Wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kevin Harrison Jr.) must help with the disposal which is about as bleak and emotional as you can get. As the film progresses, the family’s house is broken into by a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) who after a vetting process, earns an ounce of Paul’s trust and eventually Paul and Sarah bring Will and his family (and their food supply) to their house to share a residence and supplies. Will’s wife is Kim (Riley Keough) and his son is Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) and the six of them live together in a somewhat normal capacity… for a while.
Eventually, events take a turn (and we won’t get into details here since this is “spoiler free”) and the tension and paranoia comes to a head. As the events unfold, though, you have more questions than answers. There is a contingent of cinephiles who love films that leave stones unturned and give the audience philosophical questions to ask at the end. If you’re one of them, It Comes At Night might be right up your alley. Usually, I am one of those cinephiles but to leave stones unturned in this film, it felt forced. I felt like I had answers and closure and it wasn’t until long after the movie had settled in that I rethought some of the conclusions I had drawn.
Horror is one of the tougher genres to pull off greatness. It Comes At Night takes a swing by stepping away from genre conventions and looking to be a smarter, more visceral horror film. For me, it swung and missed and while it wouldn’t have benefited from any of the genre’s conventions, it may have benefited from a decision to explore a different genre altogether. Besides, haven’t the last six months been hopeless and bleak enough?
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Cut the Tension With a Knife
There’s plenty of tension to go around in this horror/thriller. It doesn’t build to anything satisfying but there are at least moments in the first three quarters of the movie that touch a nerve.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- So, What Comes at Night, Exactly?
Maybe the most misleading thing about the film is in its title. By the end, you feel like the title might have just been a good marketing ploy. (Go ahead and tell me how the tension and paranoia and desolate isolation appears at night and drives the plot. I’m sure there’s some reasonable explanation for the title but I’m not buying it!)