Trey Edward Shults - It Comes At Night
The horror of It Comes At Night is that even the murder of a child can affect nothing and go without consequence, a truth the universe validates with indifference. The movie opens, however, with the murder of an old man suffering from a disease that a lesser movie would turn into its hook, and whose novelty it would diminish by insisting on causes, symptoms, rules, a cure, blunting the brutal thrust of the film with tropes and exposition. This movie has no time for trivialities. There is a story to tell and a truth to disseminate; so the old man is murdered, presumably to save him from whatever this apocalyptic plague would have done. Some might call this euthanasia or “mercy killing”; a courtesy; something done for his own good, born of a moral decision. Paul (Joel Edgerton) might call the act pragmatic, but the movie doesn’t shy from terrible truths, and we won’t, either: it’s murder, as the nonconsensual ending of another’s life always is, and it’s the smoke of his burning corpse, dumped down a ditch and hastily drenched in gasoline, that carries us into the movie proper.
It Comes At Night follows Paul, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a small family who have established a routine of survival in a post-apocalyptic world turned on its head by a plague. They keep indoors as often as possible and deign never to venture out at night, although that self-imposed rule isn’t followed for a second of the film’s 91 minutes. In the middle of the night following the cremation of Sarah’s father (David Pendleton), a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break into their home, but is quickly subdued by Paul and his rifle. He’s lashed to a tree for two nights but insists to Paul that he has a wife and child, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), that need his help. Paul’s house seemed abandoned with its boarded windows, so he thought it would be safe to search for supplies. Will wins Paul’s trust, and upon concluding that both families have a better chance of surviving together, all six unite under Paul’s roof. Things begin to go awry shortly thereafter, and then take an even sharper turn to the worst.
Guilt is the multi-armed god that looms over the film, the It that Comes At Night, winding slowly through the film’s pitch-black interiors, staring back from the shivering darkness of the forest, infecting the bodies of our protagonists and ravaging them with dreams, distrust, and sores. Close to the heart of the film is Travis, our quiet cipher who shoulders the brunt of the guilt and for whom the weight becomes unbearable as he is subjected to dreams (or visions?) in which he is initially haunted by the plague-ridden specter of his grandfather, the old man with whose murder the movie begins, and then by more insidious torturers. He is lonely, as an excellent sequence of shots demonstrates by contrasting his solitary wakefulness in the night with the comfortable stoicism of his parents’ marriage, and the playful romance of Will and Kim’s relationship. Kim is the first woman other than his mother that he has seen in a long time. It’s never disclosed just how long that is, but Travis, long unaccustomed to women or to being social, botches his first conversation with Kim by openly ogling her breasts, a moment of excruciating discomfort that wins our sympathy for Travis while also defining for us the isolation and misery of both families’ situation through Travis’ frustrations.
Travis’ ogling drives a splinter of distrust between the two, but distrust suffuses every relation from the moment Paul meets Will to the film’s panicked, soul-altering climax. Paul’s relentlessly militant demeanor seems at odds with his past as a history teacher--“You need to know all about the Roman empire? I’m your guy”--but this offhand remark, dropped about halfway into the film, draws attention to the role of the past in the happenings of the present, of which so little is parceled out despite its seeming importance to the events of the film. In the lesser film this could have been, an origin for the plague would be vital to our understanding of the film’s post-apocalyptic scenario, helping us comprehend Paul’s inability to trust anyone but family, but It Comes At Night doesn’t waste the time or energy. This is a conscious choice, one made not out of any shortage of creativity, but because the events of the film, like the minutiae of life in ancient Rome that Paul spent so much of his life learning and passing on; like the small and intricate dramas of the little Roman lives that played out in it, all those centuries ago; like the lives and experiences of the men who ambush Paul and Will early in the film, erased by the pragmatic bullets Paul puts in their heads: all these things are without value or meaning in the indifferent regard of a cosmos that does not care for the moral convolutions of murder, whether of man or woman or child, or for the nature of intent, or even for the ravages of guilt, because the cosmos are remorseless, and survival is amoral.
The movie underscores this point again and again. I think of the shots of Travis bearing his lantern through the darkened corridors of the house, a symbol of vulnerability and hopelessness, of a vain search for meaning; of the red door they are never to open at night, which becomes a literal symbol of death in the third act, to which Travis is inexorably drawn; of the plague, which seems to afflict characters like a physical manifestation of guilt over the lies they tell and the people they murder--but since there is no explanation for the plague in the world of the film, it is just as likely that anyone and everyone would have caught the plague anyway, regardless of its allegorical applications. Solely in this regard, I am reminded of The Walking Dead, whose title we have long been informed by Robert Kirkman himself refers not to its zombies, but to its living, doomed to carry on with the knowledge that no matter what atrocities they overcome or deeds of selfless humanism they perform, they will eventually join the undead and advance humanity another step toward extinction. It Comes At Night comes cut from that same nihilism in an even darker, rougher hue.
Such is the appeal of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories: from Mad Max to The Road to The Girl With All the Gifts, they offer us a practically infinite sandbox where we are free to pose hypothetical situations and posit answers to any questions about mortality, nature, law, identity, and society that we can imagine. Every Big Question is met with a multiplicity of solutions, but it’s that very multiplicity that should remind us that there is no such thing as conclusivity. That, in turn, should remind us that our biggest questions, and even the notions they interrogate, are only exercises in self-awareness that have no bearing upon, consequence in, or effect upon the universe. The shovel that so easily manipulates sand shatters upon concrete. The dog that warns us of danger by day is slaughtered when it ventures into the woods at night.
If your child is killed, and then you are killed, to whom does the life of the child matter?
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