It Comes at Night is billed as a horror movie, and its a pretty creepy one at that full of tension and dread and stomach-turning imagery.
But writer-director Trey Edward Shults doesnt just want to scare you in the theater. His hope is that his film will linger with you long after the credits roll.
His latest film stars Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a tight-knit family getting by in the wake of an unexplained apocalypse. They keep to themselves in a remote cabin in the woods, maintaining a strict order to keep themselves safe. (Among the most important rules: never go outside at night.) Its a lonely and monotonous way to live, but hey, at least theyre still kicking.
Their lives are interrupted one day by the arrival of a stranger (Christopher Abbott) seeking shelter for his own family, which consists of a wife (Riley Keough), and a young son (Griffin Robert Faulkner). And, well, well leave it to you to watch the movie and find out what happens next.
It Comes at Night avoids getting overtly political. Theres no explanation offered as to what caused the apocalypse, or what, exactly, everyone is so afraid of. Theres little talk of local or national leadership, and none of the characters discuss whats happening with the outside world (that is, if they even know themselves).
But it only takes a short leap to see the uncomfortable parallels between our world and theirs. A thick air of paranoia poisons even the most innocuous-seeming interactions. In response, the characters box themselves in tighter and tighter, in desperate search of certainty and security.
Whats truly disturbing, though, is that through it all, the characters don’t seem like monsters. To the contrary, their actions are uncomfortably, tragically, terrifyingly human.
Which, based on my conversation with Shults, seems to be kind of the point. Shults originally started writing It Comes at Night in 2014, inspired by his personal experience with the death of his father. As the process went on, however, his attention turned to something broader.
I had this fascination with genocide and how normal people can commit awful things, he said. I was referencing cycles of violence in our history, in our past, and how these horrible cycles keep happening. The common link, said Shults, was regret. Regret is what I became fascinated with thinking about that in a larger context.
If Shults It Comes at Night suddenly seems super-relevant in the age of Donald Trump, fake news, build the wall, its not alone. Weve seen a smattering of recent releases that use genre tropes as avenues for social commentary, including Jordan Peeles Get Out (a horror thriller that serves up sharp commentary on race relations) and Nacho Vigalondos Colossal (which uses giant monsters to examine toxic masculinity).
Which, of course, is nothing new. I think all movies are a product of the time theyre made in, said Shults. In the case of his own film, he admitted, the parallels to current events just kind of happened. As Ive been working on this movie I just got really sad because it seems more and more timely. But Im excited to see what kind of art comes out of these times now.
Indeed, Shults explained, It Comes at Night was informed less by the now and more by the past and the unsettling way it seemed to keep repeating itself. [I was] trying to understand any kind of commonality in this stuff and how it keeps happening, he said. Im fascinated by how groups of people do heinous things to groups of people, and then I started thinking about just how theres a primal tribe mentality thats ingrained in us, and that we came from, and how we can come back.
In the U.S., that tribe mentality often manifests as racism which makes it interesting that the main characters in It Comes at Night are a mixed-race family. Shults told me he didnt necessarily set out to comment on race. He simply cast actors he liked (and who could blame him, when that cast includes Edgerton, Ejogo, and the young but exceptional Harrison?).
But it’s hard to ignore in the context of a conversation about the all-too-human fear of outsiders, as Shults readily acknowledged.
To me, I thought that was interesting, he continued. Especially with a movie like this, with what its getting at thematically and how its so contained, what I thought was interesting was just that its not a movie about race lets not make it about race. Regardless of race, its about people. Theres still stuff we have to be careful of, that can pull people apart.
That human aspect, to Shults, was the hook. While theres no shortage of dystopian or post-apocalyptic narratives in pop culture right now, It Comes at Night offers a more intimate perspective on the end of the world. I think a lot of apocalypse stories that Im drawn to are personal apocalypses, whether its like Take Shelter or Melancholia, he said, though he also cites The Shining, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead, and The Act of Killing as inspirations.
And what It Comes at Night has to say about humanity is not, frankly, all that positive. Shults readily agreed with me that It Comes at Night is a brutal watch.
Paradoxically, however, that’s where he finds the hope in his own film. If its bleak, and the materials bleak which, I think if youre gonna approach this honestly, it needs to be I think the positive out of that is the discussion that can come out of it, the conversation.
Those talks about how much of our own humanity we’re willing to sacrifice for the illusion of security, what those choices mean for the future of our race, whether there’s any way out of this hellish cycle of suspicion and anger feel especially necessary now, and Shults has definitely noticed.
The fear in our culture right now scares me, and what fear does to people, Shults said. While hes not sure how the world could end a disease? An economic collapse? he sounds grimly certain of whatll happen next.
Once those things happen, people will finish each other off, probably, he said. Which sounds awful, and I hope that does not happen.
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