June 16, 2017

Movie Review - "It Comes at Night"

By Carl Kozlowski *
Official movie poster for "It Comes at Night" / Credit: Animal Kingdom
Official movie poster for "It Comes at Night" / Credit: Animal Kingdom

Humans are generally a trusting species, with most people willing to make new friends and help strangers in times of need. But there are times when questions linger in the back of the mind about whether a nice decision was the right one to make, and the film “It Comes at Night” wrings maximum tension out of just such a quandary.

However, the way this psychological thriller handles those quandaries is highly disturbing and assumes the worst about human nature. And when one considers the fact that viewers are affected by the images and messages they take in, this is a movie that can really be destructive to one’s spirit.  

The movie opens starkly, with an immediate and grim scenario in which an elderly man is gasping for his last breaths and displaying strange splotches on his skin. The muffled voice of his daughter Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) is heard off-screen as she tells him to let himself pass away, before she is revealed wearing a gas mask and gloves.

Her husband Paul (Joel Edgerton) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison) are also in protective gear, and within moments they are taking him outside to kill him and set him aflame. From those horrific moments, it becomes clear that even if there are some thoughtful aspects to “Night,” it’s going to be a twisted ride.  

It’s never made clear what Sarah’s father was sick with, but it soon is revealed that the illness is highly contagious and has likely wiped out nearly every human on the planet. Paul and his family are hiding out in a large house deep in a forest, and are reduced to grinding out each uncertain day living as if they’re in frontier times.

Then one night, noises are heard deep in the house, and a gun-toting Paul finds a fellow father named Will (Christopher Abbott) inside with a gun of his own. After a tense confrontation, Will swears that he and his family are not infected and begs Paul to exchange some of his water for food.

Susan goes one better, convincing Paul to take Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) in with them because forming a sense of community will make life safer and saner. It seems like a nice idea, but soon subtle tensions arise as each man has to walk the fine line between the mutual trust and friendship needed to survive, and being on their toes about any sign their families might endanger each other.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults masterfully induces claustrophobia in the viewer, with the dark hallways of Paul’s house filled with closed doors and its characters seeming to wall their true thoughts and emotions inside themselves as well. The woods outside are expansive, but also filled with the dread of uncertainty and the sense that it would be a bad idea to venture very far from the homestead.

That Shults and his tightly wound cast are able to convey that fear of the unseen unknown as expertly as if a killer, a monster or a wave of zombies were visibly coming towards them makes the film unique amid the bombastic blockbusters that fill the summer season. Yet when tensions unexpectedly simmer and explode, he shows that sometimes the most frightening monster is our own sense of self-preservation, and “Night” becomes a well-made but unmistakable downer.

There’s not much foul language in “Night” with three or four F words among 20 scattered profanities, and its violence isn’t exploitative in the vein of most horror films, as the major incidents occur at its beginning and end rather than throughout. But the impact of its horrors lies in the fact that they happen on a very close and intimate level, with the ending particularly disturbing because viewers have come to know and care about the characters. When the violence does happen, it lingers in the mind.

There are a few bizarre nightmare sequences, including one where a woman climbs into bed with a teenage boy and pours blood from her mouth onto his face when she kisses him. One of the married couples is also seen holding each other romantically in a tub and kissing a bit, with implied rather than direct nudity, and the same couple is also heard moaning in their bedroom off-screen.

In addition to starring as Paul, Edgerton served as the film’s executive producer, playing a key part in attracting the financing for this film. He also served as the writer-director and co-star of the much better 2015 thriller “The Gift,” which also mined issues of trust with tension, so it’s clear he has a fascination with exploring human nature amid dire circumstances.

Such psychological insights can be invaluable qualities in an age when most films fade quickly from memory. Yet while he and the rest of the cast turn in powerful performances working with emotionally draining material, viewers will wind up feeling more miserable than entertained. 

This movie is rated R
 

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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