Saturday 15 July 2017

The leftovers: "It Comes at Night"

With studio eyes locked almost exclusively on the flag-waving, stock-boosting business of superhero movies, it behoves us to look into the shadows for that original work being carried out under cover of darkness. In Split, Get Out and now It Comes at NightUniversal - a studio without a superhero franchise (the Fast & Furiouses don't count) but with links to the restless, inventive Blumhouse production shingle - have provided multiplex audiences with three of the year's best rollercoaster nights out, creating a mini-cycle notable for its lack of concessions to genre norms and market demands, and for its willingness to strike out into contentious, provocative territory. In each of these cases, you get a strong sense of creatives being left alone to make exactly the film they first intended to make - which is why Split plays around twenty minutes too long, and Get Out got to push the buttons it did. Peril manifests itself on both sides of the camera: just about the only certainty within these very differently pitched works is that the Avengers won't be coming along to save anybody's skin.

It Comes at Night, for its part, is the handiwork of one Trey Edward Shults, the writer-director who first served notice of his talents with 2015's Krisha, a rough-edged indie endeavour (barely released in the UK) that recruited members of the filmmaker's own family to enact a bristling Thanksgiving reunion. His follow-up dramatises another family get together - an event with its own suffocating tensions - albeit this time somewhere close to the end of the world. Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) inhabit a (never commented upon) mixed-race household that might be held up as a liberal ideal were it not for their circumstances, which prove greatly more redolent of the Michigan militia: the family's shack in the woods has been heavily fortified in the wake of an unspecified, America-wide toxic incident that has left survivors recycling their water and wearing gas masks whenever they venture beyond locked doors. (The suffocation, in other words, has become literal.) One night, this stasis is interrupted by an outsider, Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims to be seeking help for his own wife and child. Paul at first regards this younger man as yet another threat to his homestead; though, given that he himself is observed shooting two men dead without thinking on a recce to retrieve the new arrival's loved ones (wife Riley Keough, son Griffin Robert Faulkner), we're led to consider just who poses the greater risk to anybody's continued existence.

In doing so, It Comes at Night shapes up as another of those apocalyptic fictions that strives to pass comment on national character. Just as Shaun of the Dead proposed popping to the pub as the most apposite response to any societal breakdown, and the recent Aussie drama These Final Hours saw its doomed characters fire up the barbie ahead of an obliterating meteor strike, so there seems something emblematic here about Paul's decision to bring out the big guns and enter so readily into lockdown. What's notable, however, is how often Shults defaults to the perspective of Travis, the teenager growing up unsexed in a home apparently designed to at some point become a tomb. There is a battle for the future of America going on around this small patch of land: it's like a red state that has succumbed to a flurry of more progressive activity. Certainly, Abbott's Will and Keough's Kim - gentle, optimistic, cupcake-craving sensualists whose lovemaking keeps their hosts awake at night - form a marked contrast to the terse Paul and the cowed Sarah; there's an unlikely echo of the recent Brexit-themed Wife Swap in the way Shults forces different personalities into the same small, pressurised space. While these two physically symmetrical families first form an easy bond, their constituent members glad for the renewed company, from an ideological viewpoint, they remain diametrically opposed; it's not long before those underlying differences become apparent, and everything badly unravels.

Though dramatically persuasive, that unravelling proves a gradual process, and I suspect those expecting the usual quiet-quiet-loud mechanics will at the very least be thrown - as evidenced by the steady stream of teenagers who began exiting the public screening I attended from the halfway mark, either expecting a few more bumps in the night or seeking less oppressive forms of entertainment. (In essence, Shults has taken Krisha's fraught interpersonal dynamics and shifted them sideways into a notionally more commercial realm.) The film remains as tightly, hermetically sealed as the house itself, purged of the release valves of humour or those easy wind-up jolts that serve to let an audience off the hook in mainstream horror movies; it may be one of those films less impressive for what it is - which is, after all, a modestly budgeted single-location calling card - than for what it steadfastly refuses to become. At any rate, it gains an additional dimension from the performances of quietly simmering intensity Shults fosters: Edgerton, now established as one of the movies' very best readers of genre scripts (Warrior, The Gift), has a late close-up that registers as among the deftest acting we'll likely witness inside a Cineworld all summer. With performers like these, a director doesn't need much in the way of money, flashy helicopter shots or city-trashing VFX; they also ensure the monsters in It Comes at Night walk, talk and act just like us, and there is something more legitimately chilling about that than there would be in a half-dozen Conjurings, Annabelles and Paranormal Activitys.

It Comes at Night is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

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