It Comes by Night (2017)

*. According to writer-director Trey Edward Shults the inspiration for this film lay in his reuniting with his dying father, a scene which is gruesomely re-enacted in the pre-title sequence here and which is then inverted at the end to provide a depressing frame. This business of saying good-bye was considered by Shults to be “the essence of what the movie was getting at.”
*. It’s a powerful personal theme to explore, but I think it loses something in being bolted on to such a conventional thriller plot. This is standard post-apocalyptic fare, of the kind that doesn’t bother with much fleshing out. A plague has wiped out most of humanity, leaving small groups of survivors scavenging for food and water. I don’t know why water should be such a precious commodity. Aren’t there still streams and springs? One gets the sense Shults didn’t think a lot of this through. He had the germ of the film in the opening scene and then just fell back on a standard bunker plot.
*. The title is another example of this same process of building up around images and ideas that aren’t well developed. The “it” has no clear meaning or referent. I’ve heard that it may refer to Travis’s dreams, but then shouldn’t it be “they” come at night? I’ve also heard that “it” may refer to the family’s fear, but then it seems to be present during the day as well. Shults’s own explanation is that the title came to him early on in the writing process and it just stuck in his head. He also said it might mean the need to rest, which comes at night.
*. This may be nit-picking. And it may not be, since the germ of a story and the title of the film are not nothing.
*. As for the film itself, it struck me as typical of a lot of the minimalist (low-budget) horror of this period, which seems intent on seeing how much it can squeeze out of extreme constraints, like setting most of the movie inside a single house. Think of the Paranormal Activity movies, or Don’t Breathe. These movies are all about the atmosphere.
*. The set-up is also pretty typical. The boarded-up house suggests the siege archetype, though it’s interesting that nothing is really done with this. Aside from the other family that shows up, there are no immediate external threats. This may be deliberately done to underline the ironic theme that the real enemy is within, or it may just be another example of a part of the movie that doesn’t really go anywhere or mean anything.
*. I think it does mean something, though mainly on a symbolic level. I’ve called this a bunker film, which is a sort of sub-genre of the siege movie. Unlike the traditional siege movie, a bunker plot has a small group isolated in a structure that they plan on living in for quite a while. It’s a survivalist fantasy along the lines of 10 Cloverfield Lane and other such films.
*. The other thing about bunker films is that they place an emphasis on the family, or of parodies of the family (A Quiet Place was next up). This is the essential human social unit that has to survive the apocalypse so such movies usually play up this angle in various ways. Of course, in this film it’s absolutely central. One can see the social anxiety being highlighted, with the nuclear family in need of something like a nuclear bomb shelter in order to survive in the twenty-first century.
*. The bunker seems an allegory for a lot of different things, but primarily of a world beset by troubles that is forced to turn on itself. The family that shows up on the doorstep might be terrorists or immigrants, but in the end it doesn’t even matter. However innocent, they are still the Other, a force of chaos and disorder, violators of the sanctuary, carriers of the disease of modernity.
*. On the one hand this seems pretty simple, but in the end I don’t think a whole lot is done with it. I keep coming back to the sense I had that Shults hadn’t thought everything through, or perhaps that he wasn’t that interested in following up on all the ideas he introduced. I’ve mentioned some examples of this already, but another example might be the vagueness of what happens to Stanley (the dog). What does happen to Stanley? I don’t mind a bit of mystery — I’m fine, for example, with not knowing what Stanley went chasing after in the woods — but how Stanley got back in the house and how he was killed just struck me as pointlessly enigmatic.
*. I think leaving this unexplained was intentional, but I don’t know how intentional. On the DVD commentary Shults says he never explains who opened the door, so he was at least aware of the blanks in the story. But he seems not to have been much bothered by it and what I don’t know is if he had a purpose in not saying what was going on. It seems a major point to me. Who would have killed the dog and why? Strangers? Someone in the house? Should the crisis that ends the film, the falling out between the two families, be brought on by a misunderstanding that has no explanation that makes any sense?
*. It’s a good looking movie that works up its few suspense sequences well. The ending packs an emotional punch that was unexpected. The small cast do their job. Despite all this, however, I didn’t come away from it thinking it was much more than was advertised. I wanted to read more into it, but didn’t get very far.

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