It Comes at Night (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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It Comes at Night (2017)

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A disease has spread across the world, leaving few survivors.  Those that remain cling to small superstitions in the hopes they might avoid the contagion.  A dwindling family, faced with the prospect of adding more to their home, questions what steps they need to take if they want to survive in this world.  Trey Edward Shults wrote the screenplay for and directs It Comes at Night, and stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Joel Edgerton, and Carmen Ejogo.

I spent the first fifteen minutes of It Comes at Night wondering if film-makers have reached the breaking point of slow horror.  I'm thinking of films like The Lords of Salem, It Follows, The Witch, The Blackcoat's Daughter.  Films where molasses-slow camera movements pair up with ominous droning on the soundtrack and sparse dialogue explains little about the predicament of the plot.  It Comes at Night starts with a slow conversation with a dying man whose daughter has to speak through a gas mask and protective gear, then nudges the audience into the rhythm of life in this world one second at a time.

The turning point came not from Paul (Joel Edgerton), who rules the house with a cautious pragmatism and deep suspicion, or Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), who is better at thinking about the long-term consequences for their actions.  It comes from Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), caught in the middle of an argument between Paul and Sarah while not saying a word, and writer/director Trey Edward Shults does not shift the camera between Paul or Sarah.  Instead, when the camera starts to move toward Sarah, it stops on Travis.  We watch Travis, passive in action but deep in thought, listening as his parents argue, and gradually wondering what the point is in survival.

Travis is the moral center of It Comes at Night, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. does superb work letting the mental gears shift slowly as he considers his existence.

That's something I take for granted in films of the horror or disaster genre.  If the world is so terrible and death lurks in the shadows - why bother living at all?  It Comes at Night hits its stride not because of the mysterious disease or conflicts between those still living, but in the interior dialogue of Travis as he goes through this desolate world wondering if suicide is the only real option.  Those hoping for an answer to what comes at night should stop looking for monsters and start watching Travis.  What comes is the dark hour of the soul, the time when fear and anxiety hurl everything they have against our mental and emotional defenses, and not all of us come out intact.

Shults stages this despair by having the existential dread of the night play out in tragic actions during the day.  The blood-red door separating their home from the outside world is like a portal that brings fears to life as soon as someone steps through it.  The color is almost comically out-of-place for the rest of the decrepit home, but the stark contrast between the living and the dead is right there in the red wood panels.  It's not far off from the effects of the disease, shredding the feeble barrier of skin and causing those infected to vomit blood.  Those that die show more signs of life than those struggling to live by exposing their human frailties.

No one embodies this quite like Travis and Harrison Jr.'s captivating performance.  His limbs hang loose like they're looking for something to do, only to curl up in reflexive defensiveness when he's denied the opportunity to engage in any kind of life.  There's a mid-film possibility of sex for Travis, and the way Harrison Jr. lets his body relax for the first and last time while looking at Kim (Riley Keough) with equal parts wonder and lust.  It's the one time Travis' continued existence isn't reliant on something his grandfather left or his parent's demands, and the cracked note in his voice when he realized neither he nor Kim have the energy to "make a move" signals his fate.

Then there's Edgerton, a performer so natural in all of his roles that his presence in this film meant I was in for some grounded terror. The pleasant surprise is that he doesn't terrify.  He's weak, stumbling over his words as he explains the rules for entering and exiting the house when Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim, and their child move in with them. His de facto position as leader of the house isn't by competence or confidence, but because he and his family still think the normal rules of coexistence and patriarchy apply.

If anyone knows of a more symbolically loaded door in recent cinematic history I'd like to hear about it.

These frail qualities lead to an ending as natural as it is horrifying.  The question that was on Travis' mind, enacted in scenes that recall my grandma's advice to stick my fingers down my throat if I felt sick, has contaminated everyone else in the household.  In a way, getting sick frees any of these characters from the question about whether they should go on living or not as the decision's made for them.  That's why Travis' dreams involve someone vomiting on him or trying to force himself to vomit.  He wants nature to decide what to do with his life while his father fumbles around in the dark for some kind of solidity.

I'm glad I stuck through those opening scenes because It Comes at Night asks, then refuses to answer, hard questions about whether life is worth living.  Questions of personal happiness are as irrelevant as the protective gear Paul insists his family wear if there's the slightest hint of the disease.  We're all time bombs waiting to blow, and maybe the only question worth asking is if anyone has the strength to press the trigger.

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It Comes at Night (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Trey Edward Shults.
Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Joel Edgerton, and Carmen Ejogo.

Posted by Andrew

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