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IT COMES AT NIGHT and (Lack of) Trust

Monday, June 12, 2017 Rob Samuelson

People always look for ways to distrust each other. In times of extreme stress, that distrust can lead us to do things we would otherwise think are abhorrent and subhuman. But the thing is, it’s the most human thing in the world to lash out at the things we do not understand. We bury this fact about ourselves most of the time, terrified to take a peek behind the curtain of civility. But sometimes circumstances change and that curtain falls and our mongrel instincts take over to make us do the things that terrify us most.

Photo credit: It Comes At Night/Facebook

In writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s sophomore film, It Comes At Night, circumstances have caused a family somewhere in a dystopian America to board up their windows and all but one door of their home to keep out the people who are “sick.” What is making people sick? No one knows. Why has all communication with the outside world ceased? Beats me. Answers to these questions don’t matter and they aren’t coming. What they do know is that there is a very real illness that causes people’s skin to become covered in boils and for their eyes to glaze over in a feverish haze before ultimately requiring euthanization and being burned in a shallow ditch in the woods. It’s a brutal, radical change from the life that Paul (Joel Edgerton) used to live -- this bearded, rifle-toting homesteader used to be a history teacher. Paul and his family, wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) hate this new world order, but they must survive.

And survival, given this environment, is a curious thing. When another three-person family (Christopher Abbott as Will, Riley Keough as Kim, and Griffin Robert Faulkner as their young son Andrew) comes to Paul’s patch of woods looking for supplies from a house they mistakenly believed was abandoned, everyone plays with the idea of building a new community. Like a surrogate big brother, Will teaches Travis how to chop wood in a more efficient way than Paul had. Kim is a playful presence who humors the repressed teenager Travis by letting him practice his flirtation skills on her.

Shults and his cinematographer, Drew Daniels, primarily shoot these scenes of community building during the daylight. The message that the sun represents humanity’s good side and the night is every wretched thing we wish we didn’t think is a little heavy handed, and the pacing becomes wonky alongside that clunkiness. Despite overly long stretches of these families doing chores around the house, Shults and Daniels never forget about the horror of the world they have built. They drop in periodic reminders via gruesome dream sequences that these people are irreparably damaged. Of course they cannot create something new. They cannot engage in humanity’s propensity to band together in a tribe. Nobody ever comes close to trusting each other. The civility curtain is never large enough to cover the dark, tribalistic passions that run inside of the two family patriarchs, who instinctively want to protect their families -- and only their families.

That type of zero-sum thinking never goes anywhere productive. In a series of tense closeups, Shults shoots Paul as he treats Will’s entire life story as if it’s a fabrication after he learns a detail about Will’s background that in no way contradicts Will’s reason for coming to Paul’s home. But the omission of a superfluous detail in a world that has lost civilization leads to calamity. What would have been a simple case of getting to know another human being better becomes a perilous dance, one that is powered by fear of the other.

Letting fear dictate every choice one makes is no way to live. It makes you sloppy and goads you into decisions you quickly regret. Once some time passes and you gain a little perspective, those decisions become ghouls that haunt you. And the most tragic part of this sad story is that, haunted as you may be, you will not be any better at trusting the next stranger who crosses your path because your personal history has shown that even an ounce of belief in another person only leads to disaster.

Director: Trey Edward Shults
Writer: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Griffin Robert Faulkner
Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Available in theaters now

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