Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Darkness Falls: IT COMES AT NIGHT

Trey Edward Shults is a young director to watch. His debut feature was an achingly personal one, and all the better for it. Working on a micro-budget, filming in his mother’s home, and starring his real relatives, the tense dysfunctional-family drama Krisha was deeply felt. A worthy addition to the strangely underpopulated Thanksgiving movie genre, it told a shattering story of an estranged, addict aunt coming to dinner. His confident, expressive filmmaking – a shaking, sliding, swooning camera holding tight to its characters, and deftly suggestive aspect ratio futzing - and unblinkingly harrowing emotional directness made for a most impressive film. Now for his sophomore effort It Comes at Night, he confirms his promise with a similarly claustrophobic character study. This one flirts with genre elements, telling yet another post-apocalyptic tale (we certainly get plenty of those these days) with elegant restraint, quiet intimacy, and a creeping sense of dread. Shults demonstrates a firm hand on tone and style, so much so that even the movie’s quietest moments are freighted with an almost unbearable hushed intensity. It’s a rattling, lingering experience even with almost nothing in the way of overt scares.

We find a family living off the grid in the woods. Father (Joel Edgerton), mother (Carmen Ejogo), and son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have just buried a beloved grandfather. The process was difficult. They donned gas masks, took his disease-ridden body into the woods in a wheelbarrow, shot him, and burned the corpse. A plague has ravaged the world, and the family does what it must to survive. They have strict routine, rigorous quarantine procedures, and cling to each other in the candle-lit darkness because they’re all they have. They are survivors. Into this precarious situation arrives another family: a young father (Christopher Abbott), mother (Riley Keough), and toddler (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Shults, cloaking the entire film in heavy paranoia of disease and despair, has made a world where the social order has apparently collapsed, where people care only for themselves and their families. Here we can clearly see how compassion can be a liability and a danger. And yet who can see these doomed stragglers and close off help entirely?

In dark, gloomy, slow frames, Shults make such pessimistic moves seem natural, allowing assistance to be proffered in tentative, circumspect, tenuous ways. These new people are never entirely trusted, but with the nightmarish scenario, the tight-lipped lack of exposition and backstory, and the simmering dreams which approach Harrison’s young man at night there’s an open question as to how much we can trust our apparent protagonists, too. This clenched, small, quiet movie rattles with suspicion and dread. The cast to a person demonstrates painful anxiety barely choked back to keep up the usual conversational friendly niceties and demonstrations of familial love and loyalty. When push comes to shove – a dog barking, a gun locked away, sleepless night terrors, and a Red Door that must remained locked adding up to the measured vice-grip tension softly pulling the narrative trajectory towards inevitable crisis and confrontation – who will endure? And what compromise or cruelty will be needed to stay alive? The film is Romero (Night of the Living Dead without the zombies) and Carpenter (The Thing without the alien) filtered through an extra layer of modern art house affect – sterile, withholding, evocative, still. It’s one of those slow-drip horror movies about how the real monsters are the inability to truly know another person’s mind, and the deep cruelty people inflict upon one another. No surprise there, but as Shults narrows the frame, pressing down ever more intensely upon these characters, the movie finds such an intense commitment to these ideas the effect of its mood is hard to shake.

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