Spoil Sports: It Comes At Night (2017)

It Comes At Night
Dir. Trey Edward Shults
Premiered at Overlook April 29, 2017

In 2016, I started reviewing movies in serious numbers. This got me in touch with a lot of movie critics on social media, many of whom pegged It Comes At Night as one of the most anticipated films of the coming year just as I was trying to get more into horror. The next I heard of the movie was from the same movie critics, the day after the movie entered general release. Apparently, the movie had been advertised as a different kind of horror movie than it really was, and horror fans were voicing their outrage online.

Of course misleading advertising is a headache for fans of good movies, especially thrillers– I myself am a long-time defender of Shutter Island– but there was no excuse for the amount of vitriol directed at It Comes At Night, much of it bizarrely anti-intellectual and homophobic (covering both bases, the term “artf*g” was inordinately popular). Not having seen any trailers or posters, I felt confident that my enjoyment would not be negatively colored in the same way, and knowing the audience reaction might spell doom for the film’s run, I decided to see it that day with a director friend. Meeting him at the theater, we were both ready to defend this critical darling against the closed-minded masses…

…And then we watched it.

It Comes At Night is indeed a misleading picture; not because of its trailers, no doubt assembled by some careless third party, but because of its very content. It is also and in equal measure a dour, unpleasant film appreciable only for its clean, spare cinematography. Set in a world ravaged by a mysterious disease– resembling bubonic plague but apparently more contagious and certainly more deadly– former Schoolteacher Paul (Joel Edgerton) has retreated to a woodland home with his family. After the death of his father-in-law (David Pendleton) from the mysterious ailment, Paul’s household is rocked by the sudden appearance of another family (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, and Griffin Robert Faulkner), who are conspicuously inconsistent about where they came from. The family dog senses a presence beyond the hills surrounding the homestead, and later disappears. The mutual distrust between the family builds.

If the advertising for this film was catastrophically misleading, the movie itself was no better, as It Comes At Night is a masterclass in jerking the audience around. Despite being unquestionably an ensemble film, It Comes At Night purports to have a main character in Paul’s teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) insofar as he alone is given two dream sequences, or rather dream-within-dream sequences, which additionally provide a handful of tiresome fake-out scares.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg. One of the difficulties of reviewing It Comes At Night is that it’s nigh-impossible to discuss its flaws candidly without spoiling the ending– hence its inclusion in Spoil Sports: the dog comes back home to die horrifically, the security of the house is mysteriously compromised, and the new family’s child infects pretty much everyone except (maybe) Paul. The end. No resolution to what happened to the dog, no clues as to where the new family came from, nothing comes at night. You never get answers, only death and decay and destruction. I suppose that’s scary in an intellectual kind of way, but it offers nothing in the way of payoff, and yet acts as if this is revolutionary.

For those looking for answers behind the camera, the smugness inherent in this concept will reach new highs when you discover writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ explanation that all of the answers exist…in his head.

I worry then that critics may have been blinded by the intense backlash to the movie. If you’re looking for a dour, atmospheric post-apocalyptic yarn, it’s all there. But so is a feature film’s worth of planting with a deliberate lack of payoff, a middle finger to general audiences for deigning to believe this film would adhere to such plebeian ideas like storytelling convention or satisfaction. And if that doesn’t sound intensely frustrating to you, give it a shot because it’s lost on me.

How Did It Do?
It Comes At Night grossed $19.3 million against a $2.4 million budget and earned an 88% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Critic Chris Stuckmann has a good video in which he immediately reconsidered his own positive review.