“It Comes At Night” is a bleak, haunting exercise in restraint

Image result for it comes at night“It Comes At Night”

It is films like this one that are the hardest to recommend. When friends of mine–people who tend to only go to the theater a few times a year or so–ask me if I’d seen any great movies, I have to restrain myself. For example, over this past week, I delved into the lesser known end of writer/director Gus van Sant’s fascinating filmography. I watched such offbeat films as Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoia Park, and My Own Private Idaho, all of which could be confined to the arthouse subgenre of non-narrative cinema. Personally, I loved every one of them. Their silence and meandering quality was as charming as it was befuddling; however, there are few people I know personally that would appreciate them as much as I did, or even, in the least, enjoy them. They are art films through and through; daring, complex, slow-burning, ambiguous, frustrating art films. I thought a lot about those movies as I sat in the theater watching It Comes At Night, the latest wide release in production company A24’s crusade against the current blockbuster sequel and remake obsession in Hollywood. Odd that they choose the least accessible films for such quests.

It Comes At Night begins with a long shot of a sick man’s face. He is dying; however, of course, it is not spelled out to us. The man is dragged into a wheelbarrow and pushed to a hole dug into the ground by men wearing gas masks and rubber gloves. They toss him into the hole and drench him in gasoline. Before one of the men lights the match, he asks the other, the younger man, if he would like to say any words. “I love you, grandpa,” says the younger man, and fire spits from the shallow grave.

This sets the tone for the entire film: a mostly wordless exercise into the depths of the human heart for which we strip bare through the sins of desperation and fear of pain. A rather bleak analysis, if you ask me, but that is what this film is. It does not hold back or ask for any forgiveness, which is something that I admittedly admire greatly (like something out of a Kubrick project), but it is also something that will not sit well with audiences looking for escapism as opposed to a cerebral, reflective experience.

The only information given is through the natural dialogue from the characters. “Are you sick?” is a common question asked throughout the film, providing evidence that there must have been some sort of widespread epidemic. Also, based upon the stark, deserted landscape and the few utterances of the sickness spreading through “the city,” it must have been something pretty serious. This is end of the world type stuff, but director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) keeps his film extremely tight. The film follows a family of three: a father (Joel Edgerton), a mother (Carmen Ejogo) and their son (Kelvin Harrison, who gives an excellent breakout performance), and their seemingly never ending struggle to stay alive and stay sane. Their life consists of chopping wood, silently eating dinners of canned vegetables and meats and fearing everything else. They go outside only when they have to, making sure to always have a partner, and they never, ever go out at night. The bathroom is located in an outhouse outside a little ways. At nights they use buckets.

After witnessing the family’s miserable way of life, an unexpected ray of optimism descends upon their lives in the form of a break-in attempt. A man (Christopher Abbott), in desperate search of food and water, breaks into their home thinking it was abandoned. After deeming this man well-intentioned, Edgerton’s Paul invites he and his family, consisting of his wife (Riley Keough) and their very young son, to live with them. “With more people, the house will be easier to defend,” reasons Paul’s wife. Paul only makes decisions through strategy. How can it benefit his family? He thinks these new acquaintances can.

This is not a film for those looking to turn their brain off for a couple hours. It lingers like an infection. While this new arrangement between the two families begins as a breath of fresh air–you can almost literally see a sense of relief wash over the two families–there is not much time before things turn sour. Shultz directs with an assured, confident hand, pandering to the very best tendencies within modern horror. His film oozes dread and defines subtlety, suffocating the viewer until the final, devastating shot.

These scenes of cinematic mastery are also thanks to the more than capable acting ensemble. Joel Edgerton gives one of the finest performances of his career here, uncovering deep paranoia and a fascinating sense of contained distress. There is so much brewing underneath this film, and his character matches that aspect.

I saw It Comes At Night with four of my good friends: all of them hated it. I will admit, the trailers and advertising are a pretty misleading, advertising the film as traditional psychological horror fare. It Comes At Night couldn’t be farther from what my friends and I had expected, for better or for worse. It Comes At Night is an exercise in limitations, control and restraint, from the landscape and dialogue to the inclusion of the titular “It.” The film ends on a very frustrating note, one that solicits deep thought and discussion, something that my theater-going friends did not appreciate. As for the titular “It,” I know it may be difficult to pinpoint, but it is there, and it’s there right from the opening shot.

4 out of 5