2017 R USA Trey Edward Shults 91 mins.
I’ve been anticipating Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night since I first saw the preview, and it does not disappoint. Indeed, the film exceeded all my expectations. Shults’s second feature film (his first, Krisha, won the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest in 2015) is a brilliant exercise in building tension: every encounter, every conversation, every shot induces anxiety and dread. The performances of all the actors are superb (especially Joel Edgerton as Paul and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. as his son Travis). Each character pulls you in, making you feel their distinctiveness, making you feel for and with each of them. It Comes at Night, moreover, is unambiguously a film of our historical moment—and it should, and will, prompt conversations about what it’s saying about immigration and borders (open or closed) in 2017.
It Comes at Night begins in a post-apocalyptic US, with Paul, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their son Travis, and dog Stanley living in a boarded-up house in the woods. Sarah’s father has just succumbed to the plague, and the family’s hypervigilance is manifest as they wear gas masks around the dying man and outside as they bury him, burning his body in a pit. Shortly after, they’re woken in the night by banging in their house, and they discover a man, Will (Christopher Abbott), has broken in. Paul knocks him out and ties him to a tree, worried at first he might be infected and later that he might try to take their supplies, their house, what they’ve so successfully built and defended.
This much is clear in the trailer, which you can see here:
It’s also clear from the trailer that It Comes at Night takes up what is causing so much contention throughout the US and much of western Europe. What do you do with those who appear on your doorstep, who need your help, who claim to want only to look after their own families, who might die without your help? What do you do with the stranger?
When it becomes clear that Will isn’t infected, he and Paul talk, Will still bound to the tree. The central dilemma of the film is crystallized in their conversation. Paul wants to protect his family; Will wants to protect his. (Yes, as in virtually all post-apocalyptic narratives, gender equality takes several steps backwards.) Will says to Paul: “You’re a good person, just trying to protect your family. But don’t let that hurt my family.” There you have it—the ethical dilemma that drives the heated rhetoric on immigrants and refugees. Can you help others without hurting yourself? Can you give to others without losing something? And even if you do lose something, even at a considerable risk to yourself, should you help others anyway?
We’ve seen these questions played out numerous times in post-apocalyptic narratives, not least on AMC’s The Walking Dead. (The central scenario of It Comes at Night reminds me of the extensive season two debate among the main group of survivors, led by Rick Grimes, over what to do with a man, Randall, whom Rick saved but whose continued existence could pose a threat to their group: do they allow him to join their group, let him go, kill him?)
At first the dilemma Paul and his family face is eased by the logic that always fosters acceptance of strangers, at least for a while—and it’s why humans have always formed groups. There’s strength in numbers. Paul’s wife, Sarah tells her husband that they should trust Will, bring him and his family in, because they can work together, defend themselves more effectively. And it doesn’t hurt that Will says they have goats and chickens. As Will himself puts it: “Help me and I can help you.” The logic of human cooperation—again, perfectly distilled.
So Will, Kim (Riley Keough), and their small son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) join Paul and his family in the boarded-up house. For the most part, things are good. But the montage of cooperation (Will teaches Travis how to chop wood; they all have dinner together; they drink and laugh) coexists with scenes, moments, glimpses, of a persistent underlying unease, a distrust, something wrong that simmers under the surface. Paul says to Travis at one point, even as things are going well, “You can’t trust anyone but your family.” And Shults dramatizes that fact.
Will and Kim’s youth and more carefree nature, for instance, immediately casts Paul and Sarah’s greater seriousness in a new light for their son, Travis—and Travis becomes, if only unconsciously, dissatisfied. Travis is seventeen, moreover, and is understandably attracted to the young and attractive Kim: in a strange nighttime scene in the kitchen, she almost seems to encourage his evident yearning (or is she just reaching out to a lonely child?). It’s Travis in the end who has the restraint to do the right thing and walk away. And Travis has dreams that pull in the viewer and that always end with terrifying visions of the plague. We’re never allowed to believe in the apparent peace and happiness, in other words.
Indeed, if you know the title of this famous painting by Peter Bruegel from around 1562, a painting that appears early in the film, you’ll get some sense of how Shults never lets us forget where things are going.
So, yes, the plague finally comes to the door, as we knew it would. One of the most chilling lines of the film is “Who opened the door?” And it’s a crucial question. It opens the door to an explosion of distrust. What has been lurking beneath erupts to the surface. Borders that had begun to dissolve are redrawn. This time it’s Sarah, not her more suspicious husband, who says: “We don’t know these people.” All that matters, again, is family, tribe, us against them, us not them.
There’s a portion of the ending of It Comes at Night that’s ambiguous. Are Paul and Sarah doing the right thing? But then Shults ultimately makes the decision to clarify things: the film lets us know exactly what the mistake was, who made it, and when. Shults could easily have left his viewers in doubt, which might have been safer, but he chose not to. It’s an interesting decision. How the film comes down in the end seems to me to make a pointed intervention in the current debates over immigration. I thought this would happen after I watched the preview, but in the end, the film doesn’t make the intervention I thought it would. I’m definitely interested in hearing what people thought about this one.
This film is one of the best horror films of the year so far: A+