Directed by Trey Edward Shults (2017)
by Sandy DeVito
I feel like I need to begin this review by noting how often certain kinds of films are being marketed incorrectly these days, specifically genre films. I'm not totally certain as to why this is a recurring issue, but I have a sneaky feeling it's because a bunch of the people making trailers either don't understand genre films, or studios are putting immense pressure on them to adhere to certain parameters. The last time a marketing error as jarring as this one happened, it was for Guillermo del Toro's lavish gothic romance Crimson Peak, which was marketed as straight ghost story/horror film (the studio going so far as to push back its release to October to try to get the Halloween crowd). It ultimately contributed to Peak's lukewarm critical and commercial reception, but Peak is a masterful film in the confines of its genre aspirations. It is a film tailored specifically to a gothic fan's every whim. It is, by the gothic parameters it intended to adhere to in the first place, a complete triumph. But those who are unfamiliar with the gothic genre were doomed to misunderstand its intentions, aided most readily by misguided marketing.
It Comes at Night is the most recent example of this issue; the trailers present one version of the film, a version that does not actually exist, and the film itself is about something entirely different. I started to get a sneaky feeling after the trailer specifically that we were not actually going to get a supernatural horror film, the version that was presented in the teaser, as much as some kind of post-apoc psychological thriller, and I hit the nail on the head with that prediction. Why they decided to angle the marketing in the direction of the former doesn't make any sense to me (the trailer also hints at such an angle, but that angle is not actually present in the film itself). That aspect alone would have made for a jarring theater experience, but the film is made all the more jarring for the fact that it has no intention of being conventionally scary; this movie is absolutely mired in an almost mean-spirited nihilism, a study of some of the worst human compulsions, specifically those that erupt in us when we are afraid, cornered, or desperate. The nihilism rises out of the situation - the horror is that which is innate to our fragile existence, and is therefore stemming from an inward source, a cancer, if you will. And I didn't find it scary as much as upsetting.
I suppose one could argue that perhaps director Trey Edward Shults meant to confuse his audience in this manner all along; the title of the film itself rings of supernatural horror, but the titular It is no Lovecraftian space beast (can you tell I was a bit disappointed there was no Lovecraftian space beast?). I'll stop there to avoid spoiling the whole affair, but imagine the night Itself as a living entity and you would be closer to the story being told here. The film is a dreamlike hour and 37 minutes, giving us just enough time to get some bare facts on the situation at hand; Shults is also not interested in giving us a full hand of exposition cards. He shows us some of them in shadowed light, and the rest he keeps close to his chest for the duration. I don't mind films that insist their ambiguity is the whole point - and this one certainly shares that worldview. However, sometimes the ambiguity here fails to move, and instead just feels like plot holes. The lead in from the second act into the third establishes a mystery; that mystery is never actually solved; and the third act felt like an attempt to distract me from it, rather than elaborate on it in any sense.
"Here's my issue," my friend said as we were leaving the theater. "I just don't understand why anyone would want to make a film like this. Out of the endless options, why would you choose this? If I want to contemplate how awful the world is, lately it's all around us. That's just every day life now." I understood his point. I can see this film having more emotional resonance in the somewhat softer, kinder illusion of America we were living in for 8 years with Barack Obama in the White House. Sometimes when things are going well, films like this feel necessary, even profound, as they remind us that people are capable of doing horrible shit; that the crux of humanity is a two-sided coin, endlessly turning. But lately, as our collective spirits are threatened to be crushed under the boot-heel of an incessant, mad, ego-maniacal grab for ubermensch power on the daily, films like this have an oppressive new layer of darkness that can be hard to stomach. There is no redemptive arc of any kind in Shults' fevered nightmare - all light in this story is an illusion that is ultimately snuffed out.
That's not to say I didn't like this film, but I'm not sure if "like" is the proper word for how I feel about it. There are two things about it particularly that make it an achievement: as the elaboration on the primarily visual medium that is film, it is a triumph. Visually, this is a mesmerizing, beautiful, exquisitely horrible experience. Once more the idea that the It of the title is the darkness itself is recalled in the way this film is lit or, perhaps more accurately, unlit; shadows and light juxtaposed in virtually every scene, as if the light is trying to claw to the surface of a pool of dark water. There was a particular shot of flames leaping into the darkness with Paul (Joel Edgerton) silhouetted in its center that took my breath away. The other major achievement here is every member of the cast, who clearly are tirelessly devoted to bringing these characters to life, all the more devastating when their fates inevitably come around; I especially felt for Will (Christopher Abbott), in a particularly wrenching performance. These people feel real, and the devastating third act would not be as powerful as it is without these actors committing themselves entirely.
Ultimately this is not an experience for the faint of heart, and I mean that in the most psychological, emotional sense - try as they might, the visual lights of the film are lost to the grasping claws of shadows, and struggle as they may, these characters are confined to the abyss. If you're looking for a cathartic ghost story or slasher, this is not your beast. Primarily a harrowing stare into a night that knows no end, I can't imagine this playing for the average filmgoer with much success. This is a desolate, blighted land where no waters flow. But sometimes I'm into that. Sometimes.