‘It Comes at Night’ and the horror of going it alone

* Spoiler Alert: This post does contain spoilers for the film.

Going to see ‘It Comes at Night’ was an impromptu decision, driven by wine and boredom. After a friend’s glorious gallery opening (seriously, check out HannahandtheCosmos.com), another friend and I decided to grab a quick drink across the way. When neither of us had further plans on an otherwise lovely Saturday night, we decided that being adjacent to a theater lent itself to an evening viewing. Scouring the showing times for the evening, I recalled a review about the “depressing and hopeless film,” ‘It Comes at Night.’ Well, picture me enthralled!

The plot of the film is fairly simple: there is a mysterious disease of some sort, along with a strange sort of disconnectedness from “the outside,” none of which is ever explained (thought it’s quite beside the point). We are introduced to this world through the experiences of a family of four (turned quickly to three) and their dog, as they navigate this uncanny alternative normal. There is an attempted break-in by a man (Will) who claims his family is simply trying to survive, a white savior move by the patriarch of the first family (Paul), all mounting to paranoia galore. All of this ends in a devastating climax, resolved by a parallel mother/son moment, which, for me, made the story.

Aside from the plot, which we’ll spend the most time with, it needs to be stated that this film is audio-visually stunning in its detail and intentionality. Our theater was adjacent to a loud film, and there were often moments which had me wishing I was in a sound-proofed space to really experience the fullness of the silence. The use of detailed sound effect to push the loneliness and emptiness of the space (floors squeaking; noises emanating from the woods), and the disconnectedness of the characters (murmuring through the ceilings as Travis spies unseen in the attic). Visually, the representations of spatial awareness, and the push and pull of darkness and light are the best I’ve seen since last year’s knock out film, ‘The Witch,’ accomplishing similar feats of scale and affective response.

Also comparable to ‘The Witch,’ ‘It Comes at Night’ balances the human with the supernatural in a sort of unbothered ambiguity. I love that sort of magical realism quality, but it also lends itself to the darkness of the film and to the sense of unknowingness. There is a moment where a noise from off in the woods – one which, at first, only the dog hears – setting off a parade of the male characters, all chasing off after each other, is never explained or identified. There is a terror in this moment. What is the dog chasing after? What is the feeling of connectedness and instinct driving each of these men to chase, at first the dog and then each other? When the men all stop, arriving and crashing into the clearing one after the other, the dog has been silenced and nothing can be seen or heard. There is no origin, no evidence to witness. They retreat. The eeriness of this moment is riveting, driving uncertainty about the nature of the thing outside.

Still, this is nothing compared to what’s happening inside. As the fear of this dreadful thing drives the families back into the illusory safety of the house, the viewer is funneled into the moral and relational ambiguity of the film. As each of the patriarchs, complicit with their partners, glares subtle mistrust at the other, there are legitimate reasons for each family’s suspicion of the other. Paul, after all, initially stripped and tied Will up to a tree, leaving him for dead, before welcoming his family into his home with strict rules and no option for negotiating collaborative existence. On the other hand, Will has attempted to break in to Paul’s home amid suspicious circumstances, only offering a less than consistent story about the family’s journey and intentions.

The film strikes a brilliant balance between noticing those suspicions and placing them out of view. It does this without ever dismissing them or driving them to become distractions. We just notice them along with the characters, never really knowing what is real or right or who to trust. This reads as very realistic, representing quite accurately the way we as humans compartmentalize our conflicting feelings for others in the face of ambivalent evidence. It is obvious that both men and their families find each other likeable. There are even arguments made by both sides that they could be stronger together. And yet…

This leads us into a final – and inevitable – sequence of events. I will explore my rationale behind this assertion of inevitability later; however, suffice to say (for now) that this climax and denouement are where the film’s true beauty lies: in its horrifying relatability of the viewer to the characters’ final devastating actions. Speaking with my viewing partner at the end, we had different interpretations of the final sequences. Despite this, we could both relate to the affect of the penultimate sequence.

My partner related her perspective to Paul’s actions. This makes the most sense, because it is the experience centered by the film’s narrative. Paul becomes increasingly concerned for his family’s safety, due to the suspicious nature of a door left open and a misplaced little boy. His paranoia gets the best of him, and when Travis wakes him up to tell him he heard the family discussing leaving, he begins jumping to conclusions – the boy must be sick! they are risking our safety! they will come back and loot our home with others! – and becomes intent on killing them out of a drive for self-preservation. It is simultaneously willfully blind and acutely inline with Paul’s worldview that outsiders are a threat to safety (illustrated quite nicely by the statement “remember, family are the only ones you can trust..” Paul mutters to Travis earlier in the film). The move is both rational and irrational.

On the other hand, I found myself feeling Will’s fears – they’ve been literally trapped in this house by the home owners, their son accused of opening a door he cannot even reach, experiencing his own parallel paranoia about the source of the open door, perhaps even his own fear about someone in the house being sick. His own self-preservation instincts kick in as this large and looming home begins to close in on him – and his family. As soon as the kitchen table conversation happened, I leaned over to my watching partner and whispered, “oh my god, everyone is going to die.” I suspect this is the same dread Will was feeling, while Paul still felt some semblance of power or control, evidenced by his shock – though he and his wife hiding in the hallway were each themselves wielding huge guns – that Will still had a gun of his own even after being directed to leave it in a locked cabinet.

After processing the film, I found myself a bit confused by this kitchen table encounter. I realized that I (and apparently my movie-going partner) had been swept along into the fear and frenzy, the suspicion of the characters through this turning moment: Travis reveals that the door had been open when he stumbled upon it. Both patriarchs comment they had assumed Travis had opened the door. Hadn’t he? No! Is he CERTAIN he found it open?! What do you mean little Andrew wasn’t in his room?! Emotional chaos ensues internally, finally erupting through a command (given by Paul) for the families to separate.

In hindsight, this moment makes no rational sense. Mind you, both families are sitting at the table at this point, no one in the masks or gloves of protection, apparently not afraid that they have been exposed to ‘the sickness’ of the dog who’d lain brutalized in the in-between space of this middle room which connects the internal and external doors. However, with this new revelation, we move suddenly from feeling relatively safe in the home to again feeling vulnerable – from a state of knowing to unknowing.

Despite the unquestionable dangers that the open door risked (exposure to the sickness), there is now a new danger: did something else, something hidden, lurking, unknown, get in? The actual danger of exposure has not ever changed, whether someone from inside or outside the house opened the door. The only thing that changes is the ambiguity of how the door became opened. In this way, the proceeding events are mere projections of this imagined and unspoken fear rather than responses to the actual danger.

Although the film primarily focuses on the patriarchs throughout its narrative, it is actually the juxtaposition of the two mothers in the final scenes which, for me, made the film’s ambiguous narrative come together. Although my viewing partner walked out initially saying she thought that Andrew (Will’s son) must have been sick, I disagree. I believe it was always Travis who was sick. I have two reasons for this view – of which the mothers are my final evidence.

First, there are many individual moments, all understandable in a time of crisis, which build and finally snowball into Travis’ death. Despite Paul’s earlier assertion that his father-in-law’s sickness came upon him suddenly within a day, we witness Travis having nightmares, potentially dissociating, and obsessively drawing horrifying figures. Are these just symptoms of stress? Or could they be symptoms of the disease beginning to set in? Furthermore, right before Travis wakes up and goes walking around the house on then night the door is left ajar, we are privy to a nightmare he is having: one in which he walked out of the house and through the woods. Could Travis have been sleepwalking, leaving the doors open as he made his way back to bed? We also see grandpa’s dog growing more and more lethargic, before he runs off to his death. If grandpa’s dog, who Travis spends all of his time with, is sick, perhaps this is how Travis picked up his sickness.

So that’s one piece of my theory. The second, however, revolves around the dual purpose of the final sequences, and the dichotomous mothers. When Andrew is shot and killed by Paul, his mother screams. Over and over. It’s tortuous to listen to. It is true, unadulterated grief. On the other hand, as Travis lays dying in bed, his mother sits beside him quietly, stroking his head and comforting him as she whispers for him to let go. See, for Travis, his mother recognizes the comfort of death – salvation from disease. To be kind, he will be put out of his misery, much the same way grandpa was at the beginning. On the other hand, Andrew’s mother’s tortured response to her son’s killing indicates her belief that he had a long healthy life ahead of him. He likely was not sick. They were hiding him for his protection from the possible illness and the people with large guns, not from inspection.

The conclusion of the film follows inevitably from the world in which we live. It plays out the logical conclusion of the direction we as humanity are moving. We are so terrified of what might be outside of our control (terrorism! immigrants! gays!), and so assured of our own power to control our safety through self-reliant isolation (guns! bunkers!), that we lash out at everyone else. This is gun culture. This is rape culture. This is the culture of radical individuation – of the myth of self-sufficiency.

Interestingly enough, whether intentional or not, it also illustrates the inevitable outcome of the white savior complex. This struck me early on, as Paul (a white man, married to a black woman and father of a black child) decides to invite the desperate and downtrodden (and brown) Will, who clearly isn’t as well off as Paul (Will announces he was attempting to break in to what he assumed was an abandoned home in search for water), into his home, as long as he does exactly what Paul says and follows the rules. Will’s fate has already been in Paul’s hands; but now his family’s fate becomes dependent upon Paul, as well.

An interview with the writer and director reports that the racial division of the cast was only realized during the casting process, and that this implied a ‘post racial’ world. I find this ironic, however. In my own reading of the film, the helplessness of the people of color (and the complicity of Paul’s black wife in the sudden and immediate plan to kill Will’s family before they can literally escape the house in which they are now being held captive) all points towards the illusion of a post-racial society: one wherein the reality is that the only outcome of the white savior is the ultimate destruction of all.

I highly recommend the film, and look forward to going back to it to see what I’ve missed and what I can add. It is certainly a thinking film rather than a piece of mindless entertainment (I say that without judgment), so it may not appeal to all crowds. There’s also some conflict over whether this can truly classify as horror or if it perhaps fits another genre, perhaps psychological thriller. I won’t contribute to this conversation, but know it’s happening. I’d rather let you decide for yourself!