Review: It Comes at Night

Director(s)Trey Edward Shults
Principal CastJohn Edgerton as Paul
Carmen Ejogo as Sarah
Kelvin Harrison Jr as Travis
Christopher Abbott as Will
Riley Keough as Kim
Release Date2017
Running Time 91 minutes

This is a movie I’ve seen three separate times and come away with a different interpretation of its themes each time. There’s multiple ideas I have stretching from the logistics of the plot to what thematic idea the movie most strongly ties into. None of these theories are more or less correct than the other, because the movie is intentionally ambiguous. Shults has said as much in interviews. If the idea of not having a “proper” answer irritates you, then you might want to skip the movie. On the other hand, if you’re someone who loves being forced to think and re-visit your previous interpretations, this is the movie for you. It’s slow and and purposely ambiguous, constantly acting provocative, but never pulling the trigger in giving you a coherent answer. I say this because advertising for the movie makes it seem like it’s going to be this cool post-apocalyptic creature-feature of some sorts and it’s not. The real “it” , no matter what it really is, is just a stand in for darker human thoughts and ideas.

The movie follows a family of three: Paul, the father; Sarah, the wife; Travis, the son. They live in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a disease that necessitates the infected be killed and then burned. The family is incredibly secure about ensuring their safety. As they meet more people and things start to go bump in the night, everyone’s suspicions rise and the misery starts to ratchet up. The movie is dark and things linger in the background. The camera cuts just when threads of the story begin to get just a bit less ambiguous . It gives the movie a frantic, uncertain vibe. Everyone’s character and their respective performance add to the mystery. All of them have understandable motivations and no one ever feels malicious. The element of fear is always present, so when revelations happen you get why everyone is so on edge. By the end of the movie, I was uncertain of who did what to whom and the feeling hasn’t changed on re-watches.

This is a tough movie to watch because it almost feels like a deep dive into peoples worst fears , the fears that paralyze action and cause social disintegration when they become dominant. Add on to that the natural decline in resources and you have a nice little state of nature. On my first view, I thought the movie was an allegory for the pitfalls of the Hobbesian state. For the unfamiliar it goes something like this – people are inherently savage and are motivated by a survival instinct. In a world without rules and assurances, they strive to maintain a hold on their resources. This leads to a state of perpetual violence because any other person is a threat to those resources and thereby the initial agents survival. Eventually, people, sick of living in constant fear, come together and form a government where a single authority figure, aptly named the Leviathan, determines what is and isn’t allowed. The movie feels like an instantiation of this larger theory and an examination of how it would eventually play out. It also feels topical given the global rise in nationalism and stirring of xenophobic fear of the Other. In a world where we’re constantly fed ideas that people from elsewhere are dangerous ,discussions like this are even more valuable. Should we be cautious and what are the costs of being too ready to eliminate difference?

What sets the movie apart from other post-apocalyptic movies is the sense of unknown. It’s established early on that the succumbing to the disease transforms you, but that transformation isn’t explained. The impact of it is hinted to be so awful that the characters are willing to drop anyone who even hints at having it. It makes you think about what it could be that’s so bad. Is it related to the night? Maybe, maybe not because the night is usually dominated by nightmare sequences. They’re shocking, but they’re not clear and leave their interpretation up to you. The movie is edited so that no definite answer can be reached. Everything blends into each other so you’re left to determine what’s real and whats fantasy. Obviously some theories seem more valid and others feel like wild conjecture, but the story is open to a lot. As such, the movie has immense re-watch value because you can always get something out of it, even if that something leaves you feeling misanthropic. This is the kind of movie you watch with friends who like to really get into making theories, because the subject matter and its presentation naturally lend themselves to being interpreted in different ways. On the other hand, if you like solid answers, the movie can come off as jerking you around. I only started to really appreciate it my third time and I think it’s one of movies that grows on you.

Given all of that, my issue with the movie is it I think it doesn’t go far enough. I’m fine with getting lost in a maze trying to figure out what’s going on, but I can’t help but feel it can come off as a bit dull the first time watching it. Unless you’re actively playing with a subtext and trying to view the movie through that lens, the whole thing can come off as hard to remember. The feelings it generates are certainly visceral, but the ambiguous storytelling makes it hard to remember finer details if you’re taking the story seriously at face value.

Report Card

TLDRIt Comes at Night is a puzzling look into the darkest parts of the human psyche. If you like slow, atmosphere driven, open-to-interpretation horror you need to give this a watch. There are no routine jump scares or straightforward plot threads here.
Grade A

Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!

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