It Comes at Night
Starring Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough
Over the past weekend distributor A24 released their deceptively marketed It Comes at Night. The sophomore film from Houston born director Trey Edward Shults whose directorial effort Krisha won both the audience and grand jury prize at SXSW in 2015 (but mainstream audiences never heard of). This film has a budget, Hollywood actors, marketed as a horror movie and rolled out on 2,000+ theaters on a big gamble. It Comes at Night isn’t a horror movie, in fact it’s got much more in common with post-apocalyptic indie thrillers Z for Zachariah or How I Live Now. Those films didn’t make money, A24 knows this, so they carefully marketed this film to a crowd that would take the bait, and it paid off with six million dollars (the film probably cost less than nine) and landed number eight on the weekends domestic box office.
We find Paul (Edgerton) and wife Sarah (Ejogo) tightly boarded up in their secluded home, back in the woods with 17-year-old son Travis (Harrison). Only Paul has keys to the red door, protecting his family from whatever viral infection causes blood to poor from people’s mouths and large sores on skin. When a man named Will (Abbott) shows up at their property, begging for water, discussions are made and his family is permitted to join theirs, under Paul’s strict rules. Will has a wife (Keough) and young son Andrew, and like Paul, will do anything to protect his family. They all live in harmony for a while, working together creating a sustainable life, until Travis, during one of his many nightmares, wakes to find the outer door open, and little Andrew sleeping on the floor.
Pretending to be a horror movie, it's a film about technique, subtly and restraint.
The “bait and switch” method is not uncommon in movie trailers. The standard horror genre films don’t ask much of the audience, and those buying tickets, don’t expect to use their brains or be required to think a movie through. Shults demands this, his minimalist approach asks a lot of the audience imagination, he never shows us a boogey man or a monster in the woods. The enemy here is paranoia, the details for this post-apocalyptic world are scarce and ultimately unimportant. It Comes at Night is a film about technique, subtly and restraint. It paints a realistic picture of how humans might act in a similar situation, there are no good or bad guys, just fear. A24 only uses scenes of the dog looking into the woods for the poster, the few intense scenes for the trailer as it teases ticket buyers into the theater, because once you buy the ticket, your opinion of the film isn’t their concern. “Worst movie ever,” I heard a customer behind me at a Sunday evening showing complain when the end credits flashed on screen at an unpredictable moment.
The distance between what the critics thought, 86% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, compared with the 43% exit poll approval from audience who watched the film and the 2 out of 5 stars given by audiences on Fandango, showcase the divide. It Comes at Night is a picture that leaves you contemplating, it’s highly inconclusive, but includes one particular element that audiences have never been able to stomach on film. Honestly without recognizable stars Edgerton (The Gift) and Ejpgo (Alien Covenant), taking huge pay cuts to work with a director they believe in, this movie wouldn’t even get a theatrical release. A24 had nothing to lose here because the average ticket buyer doesn’t have a clue who or what A24 is, and know audiences won’t think twice about seeing their next film if it looks interesting. The horror genre is one of the most sustainable because it has a gullible fanbase that A24 manipulates. Standing in front of the box office, some people choose the film that looks the scariest, offering the most thrills. The title, It Comes at Night, is a genius selling point and marketing ploy.
Suspenseful and creative, but it’s minimalist tactics won’t leave a lasting impression.