Sunday, 16 July 2017

Review: It Comes At Night

It Comes At Night (SPOILERS! …I suppose?)
Cert: 15 / 92 mins / Dir. Trey Edward Shults / Trailer

Credit where it's due, if you want to give your film a strong opening, go for someone leaving the house with an incapacitated elderly relative in a wheelbarrow, whilst carrying a rifle and a can of petrol. Yeah, that got my attention. It Comes At Night is a film which both infuriated and delighted me (despite everything I'm about to go on and say) in equal measure.

In the near-future in an undisclosed U.S. woodland location, a family struggles to subsist in a remote farmhouse, having barricaded themselves away from the remnants of a civilisation destroyed by pestilence. Anonymity is synonymous with longevity when you don't know who you can trust, and the arrival of a desperate, bedraggled stranger throws their delicate routine into turmoil…

On the plus-side, Trey Edward Shults has written and directed a beautifully tense film. It's a languorous chiller which delights in disturbing rather than throwing jump-scares at the viewer (although there are a few of those as well, to be fair). The cast buy into this ethos perfectly, their muted and repressed performances adding to the claustrophobia. Defined, perhaps unofficially, as post-horror, the film is almost a mood-board, rather than a picture-book. An montage of feelings, rather than a linear chain of actions. And if that description gives you pause for thought, you'll probably be on the same page as I was for It Comes At Night

What comes at night? Well, I've been down on 'studio-horror' for some time now*1; the ludicrous plots, the quiet-quiet-bangs and that thing they do at the beginning of the third act where a character conveniently uncovers the entire back-story of their supernatural nemesis. That's paint-by-numbers horror for lazy audiences and I think it's insulting. Shults' film on the other hand takes a more casual approach. At the start of the movie, we don't know the mechanics of the apocalypse which has befallen society to bring it to the point where Paul and Sarah are barely surviving entirely self-sufficiently in a remote farmhouse. We don't know why they're far enough down the line that they're not using their TV or radio to scan for information or help despite having solar-power, yet at the same time they don't seem to be so far into isolation that they've gotten rid of things like the bedside lamps they no longer use. We don't know the specifics of the airborne virus they're trying to guard against, or the reason they daren't venture out after darkness. We don't know why the family wear gas-masks to protect against the infection outside, yet don't appear to have a hermetically sealed house and aren't worried about cross-contamination from particles trapped in their clothes etc. We don't know why they're living in a house large enough to have brick chimney stacks (ie it's not a wooden shack) and have working plumbing (we see the shower being used), yet we're told they use an outside toilet and they pump their drinking water from a well outside (which would be more prone to compromise, surely?).

We don't know these things at the start of the movie, and we don't know them by the end, either. Just… not explained. It feels a little like Shults shot his film saying to the cast "don't worry, all the context and backstory will be done through flashback sequences", then the time and budget ran out before those could be filmed. At only 92 minutes and with so many unanswered questions, I couldn't help feeling a little short-changed. What comes at night? Hallucinations, memories and nightmares, apparently.

But I thoroughly enjoyed the film I watched, in fact it'll be great when it's finished. This feels like a really good standalone-episode of The Walking Dead, where the larger world is already established in the audience's mind, and the more danger comes more from social interaction with the living than any monsters roaming about. But it's not that. At least, not that we're shown. Post-horror apparently means not having to worry about details, only snapshots and fragments. It's difficult to empathise with any of the players when we don't know the broader context of their situation, only the minutiae of their domestic existence. New characters arrive in the story, which would normally be the storytelling device by which the past is fleshed out, but they're giving up little-to-nothing, either. Every character we meet (with the possible exception of the 5yr old kid and the dog) has a greater knowledge of the story than the audience, at the start, middle and end of the film. We don't go on a journey with anyone, we're just looking into the bus as they cruise past. So other than in the broadest, most circumstantial sense, it's impossible to feel anything for them. An air of mystery is nice, Mr Shults, but don't leave it up to me to imagine the wider narrative; you're the one being paid to tell the story after all…

Too loose and open-ended to be a narrative-piece, but too fixated on quarantine procedures to be a conceptual-work. I'm pretty sure It Comes At Night is allegorical, I just have no idea what for.

Scariest line:
"You don't like bread pudding? What's wrong with you?"

Okay, maybe this is a horror after all…

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Oh, something like Personal Shopper, probably.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
For the atmosphere, yes.

Assuming, that is, that it's not in screen 6 of Cineworld Fulham Road, who show a film where darkness is not only key but almost a character in itself, by having the 'dim' house-lights on throughout. Not the big house-lights which come on during the credits (and obviously not the 'cleaning' lights which the public rarely sees). But the central strip running down the centre of the ceiling, and illuminating everyone in the room. The film's characters are padding around in suffocating darkness, while I can see the patron a few rows in front of me picking their nose. I didn't have to worry about deciphering my scrawled notes for this film, since it was light enough to write by. Added to this is the Fire Exit sign which bleeds onto the lower-left of the screen, yes Fulham Road have previous on this one…

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
For me, to some extent but not enough.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
I couldn't tell you. I hope not.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Uncle Owen's in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Having watched a metric shit-ton of it in my youth, as well as countless straight-to-video duds where the cover art is head and shoulders above anything the actual film has to offer, hence my selecting it at Ritz Video[ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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