‘It Comes at Night’ is Not Your Average Psychological Horror Movie

It Comes at Night movie poster

It Comes at Night” cannot and should not be mistaken for your average psychological horror movie. Whereas the average genre film aims to delineate who the good guys and the bad guys are, no such distinction is made here as writer and director Trey Edward Shults has rendered the characters to be all too human. We understand their wants, needs and motivations very well, and this makes the movie even more unsettling than it already is.

We are introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they lay Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), to rest in a most uncomfortable way. We soon learn the family has secluded themselves in their country home as some highly contagious disease has since laid waste to the world. Along with their dog, Stanley, the family keeps themselves out of danger by staying locked up at night when the danger which threatens humanity is at its most powerful point.

But their bubble is suddenly threatened when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, believing it to be unoccupied and in desperate need of supplies for himself and his family. After tying Will to a tree overnight to confirm he is not infected by the disease, Paul decides he is worth helping and succeeds in bringing Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), to safety to where they are all leaving under the same roof. But even as they come to settle down comfortably with one another, the inevitable conflicts arise which will force them into a game of survival no one can back away from peacefully.

Shults made an unforgettable directorial debut with “Krisha” which was one of my favorite movies of 2016. While “Krisha” was an emotionally pulverizing motion picture, “It Comes at Night” is one which mercilessly plays with your head as it taps into your fears of the things you can’t see or understand. Paul, Sarah and Travis rarely stray far from their country home as just about everything outside of seems all too threatening to confront. Whether or not you think Shults gives the “it” of the movie’s title a clear definition, it won’t matter. The it could be anything. It could be a supernatural force, an incurable disease, or perhaps it is the realization of the violent deeds we are capable of committing when pushed to our breaking point.

“In order to appease the gods, the Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals… were… burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, the Druids believed they could see omens of the future. Two thousand years later, we’ve come no further. Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.”

                                                                                                                           -Donald Pleasance

                                                                                                                            “Halloween II

I put the above quote from “Halloween II” up above because those words were playing in my head while watching “It Comes at Night.” Looking at these characters, you can tell they were once decent people who wanted nothing more than to raise their families and live in peace, but the state of the world has forced them to defend what is theirs in a way they never thought they would resort to. This is especially the case with Paul who has long since become handy with a shotgun and disposing of corpses. But Edgerton, who is excellent as Paul, eventually shows the character at his most vulnerable state as he comes to see not just the person he has become, but the person he always was.

Shults shows the fears of all these characters reaching their peak at nighttime when fear and paranoia combine to create a more hostile environment than the one outside their front door. Speaking of the front door, it is painted a dark red as horror movies always feature a red door or two, and Paul makes it clear to everyone how the door must always stay locked at night, always. As Roger Corman once said, one of the scariest images in any movie is the closed door. So, when the door moves suddenly is ajar, Shults has us right in his grasp to where we are sitting straight up in our chairs.

In addition to Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. provide strong support as Paul’s wife, Sarah, and their son Travis. Together, they portray a family much like any other, struggling to survive in an increasingly insane world. Christopher Abbott, so good in “James White,” inhabits the character of Will with both a tense desperation and an easy-going attitude as he settles in with Paul and his family. This is an actor incapable of faking an emotion, and his performance in “It Comes at Night” is the latest example. Riley Keough is also excellent as Will’s wife, Kim, as she makes her an enigmatic presence to where you don’t know whether to hug her or keep your distance from her.

In making everything seem so down to earth, “It Comes at Night” does suffer as things become more underplayed than they should have been. There were times where I wished Shults had injected more energy into the story as things begin to feel way too subtle. Still, when the movie works, it really works as the tension builds to a fierce climax where I could not find myself rooting for one person over the other. Shults is also assisted by his “Krisha” collaborators Drew Daniels whose cinematography makes the darkness these characters live in all the more threatening and claustrophobic, and by composer Brian McOmber who provides another unsettling score which builds up an already intense motion picture into something feverishly intense.

The ending of “It Comes at Night” proves to be both infuriating and utterly haunting as we are left to wonder what will become of whoever is left. It feels like the movie ended sooner than it should have, but perhaps it would have been unfair to ask Shults to give us something more definitive. Still, it’s nice to see something like this occupying the local movie houses alongside the summer blockbusters as it gives us a lot to ponder once the lights come up.

As for myself, the post-apocalyptic setting of this movie is almost secondary to the one thing which should matter the most to these characters – trust. Whether we are living in the best of times or the worst of times, trust is the one thing we need more than anything else to survive one hard working day after another. Without trust, how can we survive in a crazy world? “It Comes at Night” confronts the issue of trust head-on, and it is devastating to see it break down amongst characters who might otherwise have no problem living under the same roof.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with composer Brian McOmber on ‘Krisha’

Brian McOmber photo

Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” swept through the festival circuit and gained critical acclaim for its brilliant direction and tremendous performances from the cast. But among the many things “Krisha” deserves to be acknowledged is the film score that was composed by Brian McOmber. A former member of the popular band Dirty Projectors, McOmber’s score proves to be a pivotal part of this movie as it succeeds in taking us right into the fragile mental state of its main character. I got to talk with McOmber about his music for “Krisha,” and I invite you to read my interview with him below.

Krisha movie poster

Ben Kenber: Your score for “Krisha” is brilliant and fits perfectly with a movie I would describe as emotionally pulverizing. When it came to creating music for the movie, did you know right away if you wanted it to be an electronic score or an orchestral score or a bit of both?

Brian McOmber: I think we did want it to be a combination of both. The first time I had worked with Trey was on the short version of the film, and with that one you didn’t want something more orchestral. He wanted something that just immediately grabbed our attention because to try to re-create the arc of the feature version in the short, we really just went all out with the music right away. So with that one we had orchestral, percussion, strings, electronics, the whole bag right off the bat, whereas with the feature we wanted to break apart the individual components and try to figure out how they could all work independently and also together because there was so much more music to be made, and the arc needed to be more of a slow burn in the feature. Actually, when Trey made the short version of the movie that was supposed to have been a feature. He tried to make a feature version of the film, and a few days and $7000 later… Trey is obviously a brilliant director, but he was just being a little too ambitious so it became a short film. With the feature version of “Krisha” that’s out there now, that was him going back trying to make the film he always wanted to make.

BK: When it came to going from the short film to the feature version, how would you say the music evolved?

BM: I think that the main order was just unraveling those components, the electronic components and the new orchestral components, and figuring out how we could use those textures and instrumentation and spread it out over the course of 12 cues because it was 12 cues we ended up doing in the end. I think that was the main approach to the feature.

BK: I read in an article that you said that you and Trey tried not to get carried away by ambition. How did you manage to keep that from happening?

BM: The entire film was made for under $100,000 and Trey is a young, really smart and really ambitious director, and he wanted the music to be that way too with the little amount of money that we had. So there’s a few instances where we had to chisel and tone down our expectations of what we wanted to get from the music just because we didn’t have the resources, but I think we did a good job. We were very ambitious with what we had to work with, but hopefully being that ambitious with such a small film didn’t work against us. I think we did a good job trying to balance all of our hopes and dreams for the music and the reality of what we were working with. It was a challenge with this film, more so than maybe any other film that I have worked on.

BK: What’s great about the “Krisha” score is while you might know where the movie is heading, the music itself is unpredictable in that you are not sure which instruments are going to be used to capture the emotions. Did you start with one instrument and then decide to go with another while composing the score?

BM: Yeah, I think that coming from this sort of film again we all knew we wanted to use things like wooden blocks or these kind of natural instruments. I didn’t think about the unpredictable component. That’s an interesting point. The film plays into a lot of archetypes of what film music should be and that’s like the orchestral stuff. The electronic component was more of me bringing these ideas to Trey because I felt like having these glitched electronics or at least taking organic instruments like a prepared piano and running them through electronics and making them glitch out or making errors or things like that. That was part of my effort to try to capture, especially early on in the film, Krisha’s slow unraveling, and especially to help capture that anxiety she’s feeling early on that slowly becomes overwhelming. I thought electronic sounds would do a better job of that. Not that we couldn’t have used orchestral sounds, and maybe we would have if we had more resources and time to work with classical musicians but they get expensive. So a lot of times I would just take a prepared piano and run that through electronics or these other programs where you can make it mess up kind of. In general, we never had a rule of what instruments to use and not to use, but we wanted to have some instruments sort of carryover from cue to cue as the film went on. We wanted all the cues to be different and we wanted different instrumentations to keep you on your toes, but at the same time we wanted to have some sort of thread running through that felt like there was some continuity there. So from one cue to the next you might hear an instrument that was used on a previous cue on the current cue, but we never had a rule about what we couldn’t use. It was more about seeing what works.

BK: The score, like the movie, is a ticking time bomb. Did you ever have to make a list of when things in the movie get more and more intense or do you put a level at which the music should build?

BM: Yeah, for sure. That was one thing we started with of what the music should tell and where it should bring us to and how it should support the scene. Even before we started making sounds we start talking about how music would support individual scenes and where it should go. Where the music brings us to is pretty much in her head almost all the time except maybe for the end. So it was about what Krisha was feeling inside from the beginning, middle and end, and that’s how the music helped out.

BK: Were there any film composers or specific scores that served as an influence on your work on “Krisha?”

BM: Sure. I think it was that prepared piano and the glitched electronics, that was certainly what I first thought of. The prepared piano was kind of a John Cage thing, and even though I’m not a big fan of Cage’s music I do find a lot of inspiration towards his approach to music. In a few instances I worked with particular musicians that I knew had a very unique voice and style and had them improvise quite a lot in the very early process of making “Krisha.” With that raw material they gave me, I would do a lot of heavy editing of their parts and flesh out pieces of music that were largely built around improvisations from key players. So that’s nothing new, but I think Cage definitely inspired me. Trey is a huge film music buff and he’s a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan, and he was referencing “Punch Drunk Love” and “The Master” and some of these other movies. He’s a big Jonny Greenwood fan as am I.

BK: It’s great that you brought up Jon Brion’s and Jonny Greenwood’s scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies because your score for “Krisha” reminded me of them in that they sound so unique compared to so many other film scores that are out there. Was it your intention to make the score sound unique or was that just something that happened?

BM: Well yeah, of course you wanted it to be unique but I don’t think that was the main goal. The main goal was to simply make music that was in service to the picture and in supporting Krisha’s emotional mindset as she goes through this journey. One thing I thought was interesting, thinking about Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood, is that maybe we come from similar backgrounds in that we’re not classical composers. My entire background is playing with rock bands and maybe that brings a unique perspective to scoring films. In the past a lot of film composers came more from the classical world whereas I don’t, and I know that Jonny Greenwood doesn’t and I know John Brion doesn’t. But also I have a feeling that Paul Thomas Anderson is to blame for a lot of that music too because in choosing his music collaborators and also just the way he makes films and uses music is, for Trey anyway, absolutely an inspiration. I never really studied them the way Trey has.

BK: Like Brion and Greenwood, you do come from the rock and roll world as well having been a member of the indie band Dirty Projectors. The same also goes for Danny Elfman who was with Oingo Boingo before he began scoring movies for directors like Tim Burton.

BM: Yeah, there’s quite a few. I think when I started doing this I was a little intimidated. I started helping my friends with their movies, and more and more people started to hear of my film score work and I just started to fall into it a few years back. I don’t have any musical training and I can’t really read music, so how am I going to do this? I don’t write notes to the page almost ever. For the most part, I think your musical background influences your approach to making things. Maybe there is a similar thread running through all these film music composers who got their start in a different kind of music making.

BK: Now that “Krisha” has been released and is a huge critical success, has that opened the floodgates for you in terms of offers to score other films?

BM: I don’t quite know yet actually. People are just starting to see it now because it did a lot of festival runs. A lot of my film maker friends have seen it, but so far I’m very busy and I don’t know if that’s because of “Krisha” or not. At the moment I am working on a new film, and the music I am making for it has nothing to do with “Krisha.” In fact, the music is more like genre music in that there is a metal song and there’s a couple of slow songs. It’s more songwriting whereas with “Krisha” it was a score. I hope more people see it. “Krisha” is the kind of film that I would love to score more. It’s not that I don’t like doing other kinds of films, but I really enjoyed the challenge making music for a film where music is so much a part of the film. So I hope to do more films like “Krisha” in the future.

I want to thank Brian McOmber for taking the time to talk with me about his score for “Krisha.” It is now available to download on iTunes.

Krisha

Krisha movie poster

Krisha” is one of those movies which can be best described as emotionally pulverizing. It starts off with a close up of the title character’s face as the sound builds to a feverish crescendo, and this is enough to tell everyone this movie is going to be a psychological endurance test for the audience watching it. It’s a powerful motion picture which is as emotionally cathartic as they come, and it’s one of the best movies of 2016.

Krisha Fairchild stars as the Krisha of the movie’s title, a deeply troubled woman returning home to the family she abandoned years ago for a life of drug addiction and self-destruction. It’s Thanksgiving and everyone welcomes her back with open arms, prepared to forgive her trespasses, but right from the start there is a palpable tension in the air as everything seems off. While her family is happy to see Krisha, they are still unsure of whether or not she can be trusted. As for Krisha herself, we find she is still struggling with her demons and may not make it through the night in one piece. She’s also cooking the Thanksgiving turkey, and the turkey is just a time bomb just waiting to go off.

It should be noted that the movie’s writer and director, Trey Edward Shults, based its story on a similar family situation he experienced when his cousin Nica came home for the holidays. She was in the throes of her own drug addiction which would end her life prematurely two months later. For Shults, making this movie was a way to confront this tragedy, and he cast many of his family members who had been through the same situation as well.

But the one family member who stands out here the most is Shults’ aunt, Krisha Fairchild.  Fairchild is not playing herself here even though she shares the same name of her character, but this makes her performance all the more extraordinary as she plumbs the depths of a drug addict struggling to prove to her son and family everything is okay with her now. As crazy as she gets in this movie, Fairchild still makes Krisha a sympathetic character who we cannot help but feel for. And when she puts on a red dress which looks a lot like the one Ellen Burstyn wore in “Requiem for a Dream,” she goes all out for an emotionally shattering climax.

The rest of the cast does terrific work, and this especially goes for Bill Wise who plays Doyle, the family member who proves to be its biggest personality and asshole. Doyle sees right through Krisha and tells her flat out, “You are an abandoner. You are heartbreak incarnate, lady.” And then there’s Robyn Fairchild who plays Krisha’s sister, the most stable of all the family members. When Robyn breaks down after a protracted argument with Krisha, it’s impossible not to feel her pain and emotional exhaustion as we all know strong family members who eventually reach their breaking point after holding it together for so long.

“Krisha” is Shults’ first feature film, and it is an incredible debut made all the more amazing by the fact he shot it all in just 8 days. He makes the film look like it was shot a lot longer and cost more than it did as he balances many different elements with a director’s masterful touch. Shults is also aided tremendously by the almost dreamlike cinematography by Drew Daniels and the abstract sounding music score by Brian McOmber which illustrates the increasing tension bubbling beneath the surface. This movie is an emotional powder keg just waiting to go off, and Shults never lets anyone off easy.

There have been countless movies made about drug addiction and the effect it has on the family members of the addict, and “Krisha” certainly feels like one of the most effective. It also rightly reminds the viewer that an addict will only seek help when they want to stop. We can’t make them stop. We can only hope for the best and pray for the addict to see the light and make a conscious decision to seek help. Watching this movie makes you want to see Krisha succeed and put her past behind her, but when things begin falling apart for her we can’t look away. Deep down we would like to, but her suffering is all too real to ignore.

“Krisha” shook me in a way very few movies do these days, and it marks the arrival of a gifted feature film director named Trey Edward Shults. Now that we have seen what he can do with the smallest of budgets, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. As for Krisha Fairchild, she is an actress whose work has been under the radar for years, and here she gives one of the most unforgettable performances the world of movies has seen in some time. All good things to those who wait.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * * out of * * * *