Dear Fellow Critics,
When people talk about “best films”, the number of people having the conversation is usually equal to the number of different criteria involved. More and more I find that when a film connects with me on a personal level, reaching inside and pulling out something I wasn’t even aware was there, it jumps to the top of my list.
That doesn’t mean it has to be about anything in particular, or be made by someone with whom I have a shared cultural or social history. What it does mean is that the people responsible for it have managed to express something profound and new in a way that is accessible. But that’s the case with any interaction with a piece of art—it’s substance, or lack of it, is always contained in that intimate back-and-forth. To be able to do that requires technical skill, great writing, superb performances and adept storytelling. Not an easy or simple task. But the thing that really makes the difference is the intention to connect, and the ambition to do so in a significant way. All the other elements are simply tools the film makers use to achieve that end.
Some of the films that I’ve found most affecting in the last few years—films like Spotlight, Timbuktu, Moonlight, and I Am Not Your Negro—are about people and circumstances of which I have had very little personal experience. Yet they bridge that gulf in a way that allows me inside their world, and in turn that expands my own.
It Comes At Night was different in a fundamental way. It spoke directly to me on a personal level about things I’ve actually experienced. Usually films like that don’t mean as much to me because they seem kind of vapid and pointless. This isn’t necessarily because there is anything wrong with them per se, instead it’s because there are very few people who have spent the time and energy I have examining, re-examining, and then making schematics about the moment to moment turns of my life. What the film maker has to say is usually something I’ve already puzzled out for myself, or even worse, is less interesting than whatever shibboleths I’ve already constructed in my own head.
Not something I’m proud of but still the truth.
When I write that It Comes At Night is about things I’ve experienced on a personal level, I don’t mean the aftermath of a viral apocalypse or how easy it becomes to discard what once seemed like unbreakable taboos. What I’m talking about is seeing both my parents die within about two years of one another and how even a 50-ish adult can be completely unmoored by sudden oprhanhood.
It Comes At Night, while masquerading as a post-apocalyptic rumination on how easily the veneer of civilization falls away, is really a film about the utter dislocation the loss of a parent can evoke. And don’t just take my word for it. As director Trey Edwards Shults has explicitly stated, in numerous interviews, this film was a response to watching his father die of pancreatic cancer. I didn’t know this going in, and while I’m better for having experienced this film, I’m not sure I would have been quite so eager had I understood exactly what I was signing up for.
The text of this film is fascinating enough, and can easily hold your attention with its quiet, but completely relentless build towards an ending that is paradoxically shocking, and yet completely inevitable. Even the inversion of the natural order hinted at with a death at the very beginning of the film and the death(s) than end it, make sense in the meticulously crafted narrative Shults has created. Two families, families who could be described as decent well-meaning people, are tested in the harshest of crucibles, and are found badly wanting. This is an honest and often bleak film, but is worth the effort. If that was all there was to say about It Comes At Night it would be in the running for me.
But that isn’t all.
Watching the plug being pulled on my father after four years of pain and misery, seeing a face I no longer recognized relax and go slack, was day one of the end of the world as I knew it. Every fiction I had thoughtlessly entertained about how the world worked, the rules that governed it, and my place in it crumbled to pieces in that moment. An apocalypse on a very small scale.
Like Shults, my relationship with my father was difficult and often distant. But what he represented for me (and my mother as well, although in a different register), was a world that had concrete rules and barriers. A world that had its own internal logic. A world that, while often disinterested, was generally benign. And as It Comes At Night progresses, the symmetry between the utter disruption the loss of that world and its comforts and what was happening up on screen was unsettling.
The sub text of It Comes At Night literally screamed at me throughout. Not due to any lack of subtlety, but because it was so finely tuned to my own experience. It felt like my subconscious was being projected onto the screen, which I assure you is not something I would wish on my worst enemy: the blind panic of adults faced with circumstances far beyond their control or competency; the fragility of good will; the turning on one another as everything they depend on is revealed as nothing but smoke and good intentions. Finally, the sad truth that your parents always fail you in the end, because they leave you alone in the world. All of these moments exist in the film, and were also direct parallels to my recent past.
The best metaphors are ones that take something almost unbearably complex and translate them in a way that helps achieve clarity without over simplifying. Shults uses the upside down world his characters inhabit to express how all the mythic overlays we ascribe to our parents collapse in a heap when we are faced with their mortality. This can ultimately be a good thing, because hopefully by the time your parents pass you have managed to unravel—or at least begin to see—all the fictions we are fed to avoid premature existential crises.
Still, I’m not sure anyone is ever prepared for that moment. And if you go by the narrative of the film, for many it may be too much, at least initially.
There is an arresting visual metaphor near the beginning of the film: a panicked man runs through a night time forest, searching for an unnamed threat with only the narrow beam of a flashlight as his guide. All of a sudden a familiar world is cast in shadows, filled with threats unseen and previously unimagined, all caused by the extinguishing of the sun. A daily occurrence that is both natural and predictable, yet still can elicit terror, given the right circumstances, in any of us.