For all the faults of its marketing campaign, Trey Edward Shults’s sophomore film It Comes at Night is as strong as the trailer would lead you to think (though not at all in the way you’re expecting).
To start, there’s no monster in the sense that the trailer leads you to believe. The real beast is entirely subtextual, which is fitting in a film that gives many clues but few hard answers. Is the monster fear, or is it humanity, or is it simply the sickness taking hold? Is it something else entirely? Just what is “it’, and how does the night factor in? For me, therein lies the beauty of this film; not in the answers, but the questions themselves. There is an ambiguity to It Comes at Night that has nothing to do with sloppiness or loose ends. The final scene didn’t come about at random or out of an inability to think of something better. Like the rest of the film, the ending is crafted with purpose; Shults does not spoon feed the audience, instead giving us everything we need to make our own meal.
This is where I imagine the division among viewers comes from. We have been spoiled by mainstream films doing the thinking for us. Because we’re not used to a movie that leaves us wondering, we’re in danger of mistaking this ambiguity for bad writing. This is not to say that an enigmatic movie is inherently good, either. It is a tightrope walk, to be sure, and I think Shults balances it perfectly. While the audience is indeed left wondering, we’re not left completely in the dark. Rather, the clues are laid out for us, but Shults makes the decision to let us piece them together ourselves. This is how to pull off a film of this style- you nudge the viewers in the right direction, then you let them choose where to go with it. By doing so, you give the film endless possibility: what happened to Stanley? Was any part of Will’s story true? What exactly is waiting beyond those woods? We can’t say for sure, but we can speculate, and if a film’s quality is judged by how long it sticks with you after it’s over, Shults succeeds in this way. While it may not be a movie with mass appeal, It Comes at Night undoubtedly gets you thinking. Whether you loved it, hated it, or fall somewhere in between, you simply can’t put it out of mind once the credits have rolled.
Setting aside all the questions we might have, there’s no denying that Shults is a talented writer/director. With virtually zero exposition he immerses us in the world of Travis and his family in all its apocalyptic glory. As with the rest of the film, there’s no hand holding. The story merely plays out, and we get it even without having all the details. Everything from the location to the character interaction tells us what we need to know (nothing more, nothing less) to keep things moving. Equally talented and immersive is the small but strong cast, namely Joel Edgerton, who play the role of humans in their purest form. They are scared, battered, loving, and curious. Despite any confusion with the story, there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t buy what the actors were selling me. Their actions and motivations had logical (if ambiguous) through-lines, and it kept me drawn into their world. Together, Shults and the cast give It Comes at Night the capacity to make viewers feel exactly how it wants them to. As for me, my heart was constantly pounding, and even suspecting what would happen next did nothing to ease my nerves. It is a movie about humanity, and if given the chance, it will make you feel absolutely human.