‘It Comes at Night’ Is a Devastating Dread-fest of Paranoia and Anguish

Originally posted June 12th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com

WARNING: One Minor Spoiler Ahead

Hype can be a dangerous thing to fall under. Sometimes we get our hopes up a little higher than we ought to, though it isn’t always our fault, as in some instances, it’s a result of poor and misleading marketing. One second, you’re walking into the theater auditorium believing in your heart that a movie will be one of your favorites of the year; the next, you’re walking out disappointed enough to give this would-be lieblingsfilm a ‘D’ grade or lower on CinemaScore.

Sounds like an extreme example, but there must have been at least a handful of such viewers after watching Trey Edward Schults’s new psychological horror It Comes at Night, which plummeted to such depths from participating users. Though early reviews out of the Overlook Film Festival were proclaiming Schults’s film as one of the best horror movies in recent memory and a masterclass in genre filmmaking, audience fanfare has been limited to say the least – the large gap between critical and audience score on Rotten Tomatoes says it all.

The film is entirely different from how the trailers and poster make it seem, and though I’m not sure that I love the film, I do believe it’s a risk that pays off. If you loved or hated the film, there’d hardly be anyone to blame you for choosing either side of the spectrum, because though the advertising puts great emphasis on the idea of some unspeakable horrors lurking in the night outside of the house, it’s never fully explained with the focus being solely on the mistrust and paranoia that brews between the two families at the center of the plot. In fact, whatever is outside that we cannot see is secondary, or rather even tertiary to this simple idea.

What matters most, instead, are the characters and Schults’s craft. Perhaps most immediately noticeable is Drew Daniels’s cinematography, carrying out a thorough understanding of Schults’s vision that’s unsurprising given Daniels’s previous work on Schults’s debut, Krisha. Many long takes, careful movements and attention to symmetry – and in some shots’ cases, the disruption of symmetry – are made all the more distressing by Daniels’s eye for space. Not only does his work, as well as Schults and Matthew Hannam’s editing skills, effectively evoke feelings of isolation, but also the perceived interchanging of expanse and confinement in the eyes of teenage protagonist Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

The story born from Schults’s script follows a very simple post-apocalyptic premise, but his stripped back approach in storytelling and scale is made up for by his performers and the tension they provide the material. Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough all capably play their parts as concerned parents, and even Harrison Jr. does well in one of his first major film roles with so much of the narrative dedicated to his perspective as a teen in this world domineered by adults, but Joel Edgerton is a bona fide scene stealer here.

His character will feel superficially reminiscent to John Goodman’s Howard in 10 Cloverfield Lane, but with a grounded character, Edgerton finds something haunting in a more minimalist sense. Comfortably at the crossroads between caring, if also slightly disconnected father and paranoid, fear-induced patriarch, his Paul is equal parts sympathetic, monstrous and devastating, with his emotional peaks and valleys often mirroring the narrative’s progression.

With regards to Schults’s storytelling, though, it may sometimes seem uncomfortably wedged between trying to be a slow-burn horror flick or something gradually increasing in intensity. When the family of Will, Kim and their son Andrew arrive and move into the household, for a time, the narrative takes on a more hopeful tone that does feel appropriate for the story and is soon replaced by crippling dread, but it does slow the pace of a film already willing to keep us indefinitely in the dark on its central mystery. The final act picks up a load of steam, and the acting and technical aspects are almost always enough to keep us involved, but some of the slower segments come across as uneven patches.

All of this leading up to a horrifyingly bleak ending that certainly doesn’t pull back on its punch, but intentionally offers us no resolution on what there was to be so afraid of. How a film can go so long explaining nothing, with the exception of some progressively unsettling dream sequences, is quite admirable, though audience reaction has shown that it hasn’t been to everyone’s taste. It’s a horror picture that isn’t meant to scare as much as it is to linger, and Schults does an excellent job of achieving that.

Too bad the film’s faulty advertising kept some people who will possibly appreciate it more on second viewing from fully enjoying it the first time.

4/5

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