‘It Comes At Night’ revels in the enveloping fear of nothingness

I’ve gone through seemingly time-and-time again what I favor in a horror film. Time after time after time. Needless to say I’m going to try to hard on it again here too extensively. Suffice to say: I prefer a less is more approach.

It Comes At Night, much like 2016’s The Witch, is movie almost tailor-made to my horror sensibilities.

The plot:

“Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order he has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.” – A24

The review:

As I’ve written in the past, any horror movie worth its weight in salt doesn’t simply taser your nerves with jump-scare after jump-scare. That’s completely within the realm of playing peek-a-boo with an infant. Look to any of the most iconic horror films, such as Alien or The Exorcist. There aren’t really roundtable scenes where the “rules” are discussed.

The more you know or understand about something, the less scary it becomes. It’s why the movement in the late 2000s to add backstory to some of cinema’s most iconic monsters (Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc) came off as simple sacrilege. It’s why I see little point in Ridley Scott diving into the origins of the xenomorph with his latest crop of Alien films. There’s definitely an argument to be made for some explanation (it all relates back to the movie itself and this is by no means a universal rule) but on the whole fear stems from a lack of understanding.

Generally fear comes from something you know very little about, and that’s the wheelhouse in which Trey Edward Shults opted to operate when crafting his second feature. There’s no scene of a news report providing exposition nor is there a scientist character to clue us in on what exactly our characters are dealing with.

As with his first film, Krisha, Shults translates the rawness of emotion from a personal tragedy (in this case the death of his father) to raw intensity, feeding into the universal fear of losing those closest to you. Like his earlier film, Shults explores the impulse and fruitlessness in seeking normalcy in extreme and strenuous circumstances, ultimately questioning whether such a normalcy is not only obtainable but if it even existed in the first place.

Those who come into It Comes At Night for an answer to what exactly “it” is, may leave this movie severally disappointed. There’s not a monster stalking the two families at its center. There isn’t even a clear villain or even a message. The horror at the movie’s core is a lot harder to define than something as tangible as a monster. Besides what could possibly more frightening outside than the thought of the danger being inside with you, under your skin.

The virus in the movie refreshingly doesn’t turn its victims into zombies or any form thereof. In fact, the film spends very little time what exactly the disease is or how exactly it works beyond being both highly contagious and incredibly fatal. We don’t know where it originated or just how widespread it is.

At the center of it all is Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who serves as our de facto avatar. He is in the company of his teacher cum survivalist father Paul (a career best performance from Joel Edgerton) and stressed out mother Sarah (the ever-dependable Carmen Ejogo). The family lives already lives on the thin edge of a razor in their respective isolation when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) appears at their front door.

Will has his own clan consisting of wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families soon merge and things are good…at first. But as movies demand, conflict arises as paranoia sets in. Travis’ nightmares, pouring with thoughts of hopelessness and desperation, become more and more frequent, eventually bleeding into reality. There’s all matter of combustions laid before the audience (sexual tension, conflated masculinity, “looking out for one’s own); all it takes is one match to set everything off.

What ultimately happens is at once shocking and inevitable, brutally so. This movie is scary enough on its own but its true horror only sinks in after its over and you attempt to wrap your head around what it all meant.

There’s an emptiness at the heart of It Comes At Night and in that emptiness viewers will either embrace the abject terror or find frustration at the lack of clear answers. Instead, we find blind animalistic panic, lashing out at an all-consuming darkness that will one day envelop us all.There are multiple sequences draped in shadow, darkness threatening to envelop the entire frame at points. It’s at these moments where the film really, really excels.

There’s no way to fully understand human nature; why we act the way we do when we’re scared. As the film’s tagline explicitly states, “Fear turns men into monsters.”

Allow me to play Carnac the Magnificent and glimpse into the future for a moment. This is a movie that will be completely bypassed come award season. I know it. You know it. Your mom knows it. And truth be told, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be concerned about in this ever-troubling world of ours but it is a shame to be sure.

Drew Daniels paints a jaw-dropping canvas with his cinematography, by far the best I’ve seen this year. The shots within the house are tight and claustrophobic while the few times we leave for the outside feel expansive yet uncertain, leaving us never really at ease in the same way our characters are. It’s a commendable attribute for a cinematographer to pull something off like that in way that isn’t hand-holdy or obvious. The same could be said of Brian McOmber’s score which never dips into hysteria, instead serving its tight-wound atmosphere.

A common complaint I’ve been hearing relates back to the film’s marketing. Now, as of now, I’d say the film’s teaser (posted above) is one of the best I’ve seen in a good long while. Hands down the best for a movie to come out thus far. It works as a template of exactly what a trailer should be. It’s only when you look at the full trailer (posted below) do things get kind of murky.

I’d argue this cut is still streets ahead of your run-of-the-mill trailer house output, as is the case with a lot of A24’s stuff. However it does more explicitly market this as a more traditional horror film, which is most certainly is not. It’s only during the nightmare sequences does the film dip into more familiar ground with the occasional jump scare and shocking image. On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of “D” on an A+ to F scale which is shockingly low but not really all that surprising.

This isn’t a movie for a “fun” movie night with your friends. Well unless those friends are like weird and “pretentious” like me or sadists. It Comes At Night is not a fun movie. It’s a movie that’s actually a lot more simple than it lets on, all while never going over the top (something its B-movie title may suggest) in a way that would feel false to the world Shults creates. Some may find this boring while I argue it’s refreshing.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the red door which serves as the only entrance and exit for the home. Said door is never supposed to be opened after nightfall. As is the case with movies however, the door does open. However, we never get a glimpse of some horror such as a monster or zombie horde. Instead we only see empty blackness. A majority of horror films presume the former is scarier. Shults favors the latter however, allowing audiences to squirm in the expanse of the unknown and contemplate the familiarity we may find within our own souls.

For better or worse, ‘Swiss Army Man’ the first wholly singular cinematic experience of 2016

-cracks knuckles-

So…where were we?

I wouldn’t consider this a return from my self-imposed hiatus from reviewing films. I’m still in a state of weird flux as to how to continue with….with….let’s call it “my hobby.” I think tentatively, from here on out, I’ll keep it to movies that I actually have something “different” or “personal”  to yammer on about.

A movie so singular and sincere has emerged from the ether that is practically taunting me to write something about it in an attempt to define it. Like many, I had read the stories earlier this year about a film called Swiss Army Man back when it debuted at Sundance. Overblown headlines casually dismissed the film as “the movie with Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse” and focused instead on audience walk-outs.  The premise alone was enough to pull me in. The fact that A24, a distributer that has already put out two winners and personal favorites of mine this very year (The Witch and Green Room, respectively),  opted to give it a wide release was the final straw in ensuring my ass would be in the seat should it reach Oklahoma.

Luckily it did hit one theater in my area, and while I don’t think it will necessarily set the world aflame given what it is competing against at the local multiplex this summer, it has perhaps the most cult potential of any film I’ve seen this year.

It’s so unique that I dare not really compare it to anything else. I’d quickly classify it as a “buddy travel film” but that would be a disservice to everything it holds. Yes, there are fart and boner jokes. Yes, it gets thematically heavy and almost frustratingly complex. It however meshes those two worlds (the juvenile and pretentious) in such a way that it succeeds entirely in spite of itself. It is at once both a celebration of the absurd and mundane, and I can’t wait to talk to you about it.

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The plot:

“Hank, stranded on a deserted island and about to kill himself, notices a corpse washed up on the beach. He befriends it, naming it Manny, only to discover that his new friend can talk and has a myriad of supernatural abilities…which may help him get home.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I feel as if there is going to be a large portion of people that see this movie and ask, “What the fuck was that?” This is a general reaction that I fully believe was co-writers/co-directors Daniel Scheiner and Daniel Kwan implicit intention of invoking. I can only assume they wear those reported walk-outs as badges of honor given just how intentionally strange their film gets.

The beauty of Swiss Army Man is that, like the multipurpose corpse for which it is named, it is a film that will mean almost anything to anyone. You could watch Swiss Army Man and find a movie about raising a child. You could find a movie about the ways broken people help other broken people. It could be about overwhelming loneliness and the power of love and hope. You could even simply view it as just a movie about a lost guy hanging out with a farting corpse and getting into wacky adventures. To me, it was a deeply personal yet completely universal film revolving around themes of growing up and accepting yourself for every little weird fault.

It takes about 5 solid minutes for the film to establish its universe. The next thing you know Hank (Paul Dano) is riding on the titular corpse Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) as if he were a jet ski, propelled by the later’s farts. As far as meet-cutes go, it is hands down the year’s most memorable.

From the get go, this movie rides on whether the chemistry between in its two respective leads. Luckily both Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe turn in absolutely stellar performances, which also no doubt come in as their most intimate given just how much poking and prodding the pair do to one another over the film’s runtime. I’d be hard pressed to name a film out of this year that rode so high on the complete commitment of its stars.

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I don’t want to accuse Dano of being typecast, but the man excels at playing lovable weirdoes. That isn’t to say the guy has anything left to prove. After going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, I’m all in for whatever Dano is selling. When we meet Hank, he is literally at the end of his rope as he prepares to hang himself to escape the boring monotony of stranded desert island life. Enter: Manny, who may or may not actually be a magical, talking corpse. Don’t worry. The movie will give you a definitive answer before all is said and done.

As the movie continues, we learn more and more about how Hank got to where he is, both physically and psychologically. There is a girl back home, played by the lovely and underrated Mary Elisabeth Winstead, he has a thing for and the movie even plays into the creepier aspects of this, layering Hank’s plight even more past the cliche of the tradition “journey home” arc so common in films. Conversely, Manny comes from a very different play. Where Hank is stuck sorting through his own issues, Radcliffe’s Manny is a completely clean slate. He’s a toddler, ready to know what everything is and how the world works. Soon enough, he blasts through adolescence and becomes corrupted in ways we all do by shame and self-doubt.

Those who’ve dismissed Radcliffe as a “flash-in-the-pan” can officially step aside. Of all the Harry Potter alumni, he’s taken what’d I consider to be the more interesting, multi-faced role choices; this latest, to be blunt, being the best of his entire career thus far (Potter included).

I’m not positive I can even overstate just how good Radcliffe is. When he experiences happiness at the simplest of things, it is utterly infectious. And when the sadness of his coming age and eventual belief that he is disgusting is crushing. It’s the most likable performance from an actor this year so far and as unlikely as it will ultimately be, I’d love to see Radcliffe get some attention next year once awards’ season starts collectively bothering all of us.

While both Dano and Radcliffe give phenomenal performances, they wouldn’t have a prayer without the direction and script of the Daniels. The pair are known primarily for their music video work, including a little bit of magic you may remember from a couple years back…

Swiss Army Man is their feature debut, and I’d be hard pressed to point to an example of a director or directors not knowing any better paying off so incredibly. The Witch, another cinematic highlight for me this year, also came from a first time writer and director – Robert Eggers. Whereas that film felt like it came from an industry veteran in just how precise and nuanced it was in its execution, the Daniels go in the exact opposite direction that will no doubt polarize more than just a few people.  I, however, see their success with Swiss Army Man as a testament to cinema’s fluidity. There is no one “right” way to craft a movie after all. The Daniels saw no limitations when assembling their first feature, and bypassed good taste and convention as the brought it all in; a gamble that could have easily led to a clusterfuck of ideas, visuals and tones. Luckily for us however, they crafted a film is philosophical and juvenile in equal measures, and it plumbs deep emotional and spiritual ideas without ever being pretentious. In other words, it’s a movie with something to teach you but also laugh along side you as it casually tosses around fart and boner jokes left and right. 

Given their most known for outlandish visuals, it should come as no surprise that the film looks as evocative as it is ludicrous. Cinematographer Larkin Seiple takes a $4 million dollar movie and made it look like it cost $40 million. When the modest budget becomes somewhat obvious the Daniels take it up a notch by implementing a handmade style reminiscent of Michel Gondry. 

The music is another aspect that elevates the film past its price range, enlisting Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra to handle score duties. At times, it feels as if the two are mocking/parodying the care-free jungle jams of Karen O’s classic Where the Wild Things Are score. A minor nitpick, but for the most part the film’s score works best when it brazens its own singular, weird path with the exception of two instances when John Williams’ theme to Jurassic Park is used to better effect than the fucking Jurassic Park sequel that came out last year!  

This isn’t going to be a movie for everyone, and for that its biggest strength (its uniqueness) could also be viewed as its biggest flaw. I’d be lying if EVERYTHING in this film made sense to me. Just because I watch a few movies doesn’t make me an expert and things do (constantly) go over my head. As I said before, there is a lot of interpretation when tackling this movie, and that isn’t for everyone. Hell, I’ve dedicated one day a week where I blatantly try to avoid thinking too hard about a movie. So I can’t particularly fault anyone for not liking this movie as it is REALLY weird and more than a little hefty in its themes. Personally, I like a movie that challenges, enlightens and entertains me. A true triple threat; a cinematic Jennifer Lopez if you will, but recognize that people don’t need really need more than just one of those elements.

Regardless of whether you think you may or may not like Swiss Army Man, I fully recommend you give it a shot while it’s still in theaters at the very least. I can at least promise that you’ll have a wholly memorable experience with it.

It’s a film that’s going to buzz around in your brain a lot longer than the latest Independence Day or Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson vehicle, whether you ultimately liked the movie or not. It’s a movie with real vision and different; something we don’t see much of in a landscape that is largely uniform with sequels, prequels, reboots and all-female re-imaginings.