It Comes At Night is production studio A24’s newest film directed by Trey Edward Shults. A24 has made a name for themselves as of late for tackling projects that other studios won’t touch. Why won’t other studios touch these films? Well, the main reason is that the scripts for these films are usually submitted by artists who want to also direct their films. Big studios don’t like this unless the artist is already a well-known superstar; they prefer hiring their own directors and film crews while the original writer is forced into the back seat as their idea falls into the hands of a committee rather than a singular artistic vision. They do this because it typically results in final products that are “safer.” In contrast, A24 has broken out of the norm by allowing artists complete control over their works. I’m not saying this makes every film of theirs a good film (and neither are they), but the final result is a filmography that is full of unique styles and original stories. A24 has become the studio that caters to the rising artist.
This is Trey Shults’ second feature-length film and his second time working with A24. His first film, Krisha (2016), is a psychological thriller about a family having Thanksgiving dinner together… no, I’m serious, that’s all that happens, and I hear that it’s actually pretty damn good. Krisha currently sits at an outstanding 97% on Rotten Tomatoes while It Comes at Night finds itself comfortably at the 86% mark. Where you start to see a difference in the two films is in the user score; a decent 79% for Krisha, and a more-than subpar 43% for It Comes at Night. The same thing happened with another of A24’s popular horror movies, The Witch (2016) [read my review for it here]. Critics and film festival goers raved about the mastery of this film, and it was advertised as one of the scariest and most disturbing horror films of the decade. After the film’s theatrical release, however, audiences were simply disappointed in the lack of horror, and its user score and box office numbers suffered because of this.
The same thing happened to Shults’ latest film, and it is the primary reason I am writing this review/rant. If you want to skip to the rant part, then scroll on down to the X-Factor section. For now, I’m going to go through a quick review of It Comes at Night.
Overall, the story is very intriguing and keeps you interested for the vast majority of the film. It’s about a family that moves out to their grandfather’s house in the middle of nowhere following the spread of an apocalyptic plague (no, it does not turn people into zombies). A man breaks into their home one night and the family is forced to make some tough decisions regarding the man and their own safety. Paranoia induced chaos ensues from here. The story focuses in on the family’s teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and specifically shows how he experiences the nightmarish world that he has been thrust into.
Speaking of nightmares, I think it’s time to talk about my first (and perhaps biggest) issue with the story. There are a lot of dream sequences in this film. The worst part is that the film shows you that there’s about to be a dream sequence; it tells you everything that is about to happen is not real, so you can relax. Granted, this is a better way of doing it than faking you out with five or six different secret dream sequences, but they’re still annoying. I will say that towards the end of the film, Shults does something to blur the line between these dreams and reality (more on this in the Visuals section) that is quite interesting.
The other negative I want to mention is that this film is not going to give you a payoff. As I said before, the story does keep you interested, but when the end credits start, they’ll leave you with an empty feeling. The only thing you’ll be able to say is, “that was it???”. I say this because that seemed to be the case for at least twenty people in my theater, who promptly stormed down aisle, probably frustrated that they felt like they had wasted their time (and perhaps money). It is probably important to note here that this feeling is the purpose of the film. It is an extremely depressing story that wants you to feel hopeless and empty at its conclusion. BUT, it may have been a result of something else, something which will be discussed in the X-Factor.
Similarly to The Witch, and a lot of other A24 films, the acting was superb all around. The brightest star in this cast is also the most experienced one: Joel Edgerton (known for his role in his directional debut The Gift and Black Mass). Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a great young actor that I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the next two or three years, but most of his screen time is dedicated to staring into camera lenses.
Again, similarly to A24’s other films, the visuals are easily the best part of the film. This is due primarily to the freedom given to the directors to explore their craft and make the film in their own vision rather than in the vision of a production executive who wants to go the safest route.
This movie is filled to the brim with stunning shots that feature incredible lighting techniques and excellent set pieces. It is also very well edited. More than anything, it was the visuals that helped me create an emotional connection to the story and its characters.
Shults also uses changes in the film’s aspect ratio in a way that I have not seen other directors use it before (unless I only just now noticed it for the first time). As Travis’s dream sequences are beginning, the aspect ratio slowly transfers from a fuller ratio to a wider one, and back again once the sequence is over. [WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILER AHEAD] However, towards the end of the film, the changes become more subtle, and the ratio never fully returns to its original size, showing how Travis’s reality is starting to blur with his nightmares (literally) [END SPOILERS].
The score, composed by Brian McOmber, works wonderfully for building suspense. On top of that, the first few pieces of the score have a type of sinister beauty to them that really stand out. As the film drags on, the music blurs into itself and begins to become less distinct, until it is totally silent for the finale. This was done on purpose to match the tone of the film as the story progresses, but it makes you miss the attention-grabbing pieces from the beginning of the film.
X-Factor: 2/10, Title and Marketing
Let it be known that It Comes at Night is not a horror movie. I repeat, It Comes at Night is not a horror movie. It is purely a psychological thriller and an exploration of what “good” people are willing to do during times of desperation.
Unfortunately, the marketing campaign did not reflect this. Much like The Witch, It Comes at Night was marketed as a psychological horror film about a family living in a remote location while something stalked them from outside of their home. I will not include a spoiler tag when I say this because I want to dig out any expectations you might have for this film: nothing comes at night. There isn’t a beast or paranormal creature looking for a way into their house or waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. What there is, is a few good-natured people struggling to survive alongside one another in a world that forces distrust amongst them. Again, literally the only thing that comes at night (at least, comes more than once) are Travis’s dream sequences.
The marketing and title not only affected general audience reactions to this film, it even affected mine! I – with all the mental and intellectual superiority there is to offer – could not remain unaffected by this film’s forked-tongued marketing campaign. I was expecting a well-made horror film (which, if you remember, are some of my favorite films), and did not get one.
Let’s dispel this notion that one’s expectations will not affect how one enjoys a film. For instance, shortly after seeing this film, I went and saw The Mummy, a movie I was expecting to be utter shit. Because it was slightly better than utter shit, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Before I saw Arrival, I was expecting a well-made sci-fi film from one of my favorite rising directors, and that’s exactly what I got. When I went and saw this movie, I wanted to see a horror film, and was ultimately disappointed that I did not see one. A marketing campaign should never spin the film in a way that presents potential viewers with something the movie is not. The last time I remember this happening was with DC’s Suicide Squad, where they released 4 different trailers that spotlighted different elements of the film in an attempt to reach every potential target audience.
Here’s where I’ll give the marketing team some leeway; they’re right in assuming that more people will come see a cheaper horror movie compared to a cheaper post-apocalyptic thriller. If they want the latter, all they have to do is turn their TV to AMC and wait for the next The Walking Dead marathon [sidenote: that show is shit compared to this movie, don’t actually go watch it]. But if you straight-up lie to the majority of your potential ticket buyers, then you have to expect some consequences and backlash no matter how good your film actually is.
Not that A24 is going to care about what score I give their movie, but I want them to know that this film would have received at least an 8 if it wouldn’t have pretended to be something it’s not. Unfortunately, it must now suffer the consequences and be placed in the high-6 region. If you have seen any of A24’s other horror/thriller type films and enjoyed them, then I would highly recommend this film to you. It is an expertly made film that is sure to please the critical eye. If you typically do not enjoy thrillers that are more style over substance, then you might not enjoy this one as much, as there is a miniscule amount of serious tension and scare factor. Once again, this film falls into the same category as The Witch: if you’re a fan of great acting and excellent visuals, then you’ll love this movie; but on the flip side, I would not blame anyone who sees this film and says that “it’s too boring.”