Sunday, June 11, 2017

In Theaters: IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr., David Pendleton, Griffin Robert Faulkner. (R, 91 mins)

It's not surprising that A24 picked up the distribution rights for IT COMES AT NIGHT, an intense and extremely claustrophobic psychological horror film that falls in line with two other divisive genre titles they're released: THE WITCH and THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER--well-crafted, minimalist exercises in escalating tension and paranoia that attract significant critical acclaim while alienating mainstream moviegoers. It's the second feature film by 28-year-old Trey Edward Shults, a Terrence Malick protege whose 2015 indie family dysfunction drama KRISHA got some significant critical acclaim. He then worked as a production assistant on Jeff Nichols' 2016 film MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, where he met co-star Joel Edgerton, who produces and stars in IT COMES AT NIGHT, a film that will likely frustrate those looking for standard, straighforward horror with clear-cut explanations for the things that occur. Shults is more interested in symbolism, atmosphere, and creating a sense of disorientation (certain scenes have a different aspect ratio, and that's by design) and mounting unease that explodes into paranoia that ultimately leads to tragedy. It's grim and uncompromising, and as far as multiplex counter-programming goes, make no mistake--this is the Feel Bad Hit of the Summer.

Shults opens the film with the camera planted on an elderly, dying man covered in sores in what are obviously the last minutes of his life. Muffled voices try to comfort him as the camera pulls back to show the room covered in plastic sheeting and his family members wearing gloves and oxygen masks. The dying man, Bud (David Pendleton) is taken outside in a wheelbarrow as another man tells him he's sorry and that they love him before shooting him in the head, pouring gasoline over his corpse, and setting him ablaze. Bud was killed by his son-in-law Paul (Edgerton), who's moved his family--wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and 17-year-old son Travis (Kevin Harrison Jr.)--into an isolated, boarded-up cabin in the woods following some kind of plague that has wiped out an undetermined number of people. As they grieve over the loss of Grandpa Bud, who became infected only a day earlier, they cope with the day-to-day monotony of life in this post-apocalyptic dystopia. Food is rationed, they have their own water filtration system, and they never stray far from the house, and never, under any circumstances, do they go out at night. One night in the wee hours, Paul hears someone trying to break into the house through its only entrance, a red door at the end of a hallway that remains locked at all times. The intruder is Will (Christopher Abbott), and Paul ties him to a tree for a couple of days to ensure that he isn't infected. Will pleads with Paul for help, insisting he can be trusted, that he has his own family to protect and he was only looking for water, and broke into the house because he saw it boarded up and assumed it was abandoned. A hesitant Paul determines that Will can be trusted to an extent, and the two drive off to get Will's wife Kim (Riley Keough), their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), and their water and food supply, which includes six chickens and a goat played by Black Phillip from THE WITCH.

The two clans quickly bond and an extended family is on the verge of forming, with Paul and Sarah agreeing with the notion of strength in numbers, especially since, if Will found them (likely after he saw the smoke from the cremation of Bud), others might find them as well, and they might not be as friendly. It isn't long before unease and mistrust sets in, from barely-perceived slights to statements that conflict with previously provided information. Paul is visibly distressed when Will mentions that he's an only child, but in his early story of how he ended up breaking into the house, he specifically stated that he had a brother (when Paul questions him about it, Will says "Well, brother-in-law...he's Kim's brother...he's like my brother"). The seeds of mistrust and simmering resentment are planted (did Will deliberately mislead Paul or was it just a wrong choice of words after being tied to a tree for two days without food or water?), and it's all downhill from there, coming to a head when Travis hears some noises in the night and finds young Andrew asleep on the floor in what was Bud's room after an apparent bout of sleepwalking. Travis notices that the red door is unlocked and ajar and his lost dog Stanley is infected and dying right outside. Who opened the door? Was it a sleepwalking Andrew? Was someone trying to break in?  Is someone hiding in the house? Will and Kim deny that Andrew's a sleepwalker and they insist he's too short to reach the lock and the handle, instead suggesting that maybe Travis was half-asleep and imagined the door being unlocked. With little Andrew unable to remember if he touched Stanley and Travis possibly being infected after holding Andrew's hand and walking him back to bed, the families distance themselves on opposite sides of the cabin, and it's quite clear at this point that none of this is going to end well.

The terrors of IT COMES AT NIGHT exist almost entirely in the mind, as the constant state of vigilance gives way to paranoia, distrust, and hostility, bringing out the worst in everyone. Shults, who wrote the story as part of the grieving process just after his father died, tells the story mostly through the eyes of impressionable and sensitive Travis, who's loved by his parents but nonetheless feels isolated and lonely, especially when he overhears both of the couples having sex at various points. He's also fantasizing and having dreams about Kim, and even those are invaded by nightmarish visions of death and disease, offering no escape from his depressing existence. Paul notices his curious son eyeing Kim and tells him to stay focused, stern but sympathetic in his understanding that despite everything that's happened, Travis is still a 17-year-old kid with raging hormones who's had everything--his beloved grandfather, his dog, and his adolescence--taken from him by a world that's become a plague-ravaged hellhole. It's a terrific and subtly understated performance by Harrison (THE BIRTH OF A NATION and the Fox series SHOTS FIRED), who does a lot of acting with his eyes and his body language. It's refreshing how Shults exhibits some serious discipline in his handling of the story and the direction in which it heads. He demonstrates his knowledge of the masters, at times channeling Stanley Kubrick in the use of natural or very limited lighting from flashlights or lanterns, and the way the Steadicam prowls the dark and ominous hallways, making the sizable cabin feel like a smaller Overlook Hotel, or in the very John Carpenter way he has his characters barricaded inside to keep an existential evil outside. Everything that happens within the context of IT COMES AT NIGHT's world is thoroughly plausible and believably handled by the actors, who never resort to chewing the scenery and overselling the situation. Even the little kid, who only has a few lines, is really good. IT COMES AT NIGHT is a film that probably shouldn't have been given a wide release in the summer. It's a cerebral, methodical downer that people looking for another Blumhouse jump-scare rollercoaster ride will leave disgruntled and grumbling (cue audible mutterings of "That was stupid" and "Fuckin' bullshit" as the credits rolled and the audience shuffled out of a Saturday matinee showing). But, like THE WITCH and THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, IT COMES AT NIGHT is an intelligent, challenging genre offering that gets under your skin and will stay with you long after it's over.

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