We live in a BuzzFeed, slide show world. We live in a culture with a short attention span, a society that wants everything explained and spoon fed to us. We’re happier with a two-hour spandex filled commercial pimping the next CGI, explosion filled movie than a movie with substance.
Director Trey Edward Shults isn’t a parent with a spoon making plane noises so the audience will eat It Comes at Night. It Comes at Night reveals very little through the course of the movie. It wants to keep its secrets. At the same time, Shults challenges us to pull those secrets from the movie.
We know some time has passed since a virus devastated the country. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family have secluded themselves from the rest of the world, but not safe from the virus. In the opening scenes Bud (David Pendleton) is dying from the virus. Before the opening credits have finished, Paul is placing a pillow over Bud’s head and shooting him, a mercy killing.
What killed Bud? The camera pans across a room in the house Travis, his wife Sarah, and their son Travis call home. It doesn’t settle on the painting, but Travis stares at it for a moment. It’s no accident the painting is in the movie. The painting is The Triumph of Death. It’s a brutal painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569). Skeletons are depicted attacking and killing people from every walk of life. The landscape is a wasteland. Bruegel lived during a period of history that saw a thousands, if not more, people die from the plague. The meaning behind Bruegel’s painting is simple-death comes for us all.
Has the Black Plague returned? Bud shows the classic symptoms of the diesase. First, we’re told he had flu-like symptoms. Buboes, puss filled swellings, are shown on his arms, legs, and chest. Some are broken with puss coming out. Travis has nightmares of Bud vomiting blood. Although vomiting blood isn’t a symptom of the plague he would have coughed some up if it got into his lungs. In his nightmare Travis’s brain may have translated that coughing into projectile vomiting.
But what is “it?” What comes at night? Is “it” Travis and his family’s self-imposed isolation or is “it” fear,paranoia and panic? Humans have never really truly felt safe at night. We invented fire to escape the darkness. We invented electricity when fire didn’t do the trick. We light up our homes, our neighborhoods, and our cities. However, deep down inside we are still afraid of the dark and the things that go bump in the night.
The night in It Comes at Night holds terrors for Travis’s family. They religiously lock an outside door every night to keep the terrors out. Opening the door at night lets the terror inside. After Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house he inadvertently lets those terrors not only into the house but into the family’s psyche. Bringing Will’s family into an already established household doesn’t help matters. The bumps in the night are built up in both the family’s minds.
Shults has created a tense, dark movie where the smallest details becomes bigger later in the movie. Travis thinks he catches Will in a lie when they’re talking about their families. Was Will lying about his brother-in-law? Did he even have a brother? Travis’s dog, who had run away earlier in the movie, returns to the house. He’s sick and dying from the plague. However, it’s the question of how the dog got into the house that weighs on Travis’s mind. Who left the door unlocked and who let the dog inside? No one is sure, but everyone has their suspicions.
Travis has nightmares about his dead grandfather visiting him in his bedroom. As the movie gets closer to the end the nightmares get worse. Travis even starts having nightmares about Kim, Will’s wife. The nightmares are trying to tell us something. Is Travis’s fear of the plague manifested in the nightmares or are the nightmares clues to let us know Travis has the plague. Shults lets the viewer decide, but one thing for certain is that the nightmares influence the events at the end of the movie.
The ending may leave some people feeling cheated and wondering what happens next. The ending is reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’s No Country For Old Men, it just ends. No explanations, nothing is wrapped up in nice tidy bow. We’re forced to put the pieces together and form our own conclusions.
Shult’s movie is more psychological in nature than most horror movies that have come out in the past few years. Shults has managed to create an atmosphere of terror without stooping to traditional horror movie tropes. Slasher movies and movies about serial killers can be scarier, however, nothing is scarier than the things we build up in our own minds. Despite the grades at Cinemascore and Rotten Tomatoes, It Comes at Night is hand down one the best movies of 2017.