‘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 * * * *

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‘Alien: Covenant’ Mixes the Old and the New for a Pulse-Pounding Ride

Alien Covenant poster

With the “Alien” franchise, it always helps to keep your expectations in check. The first one, released back in 1979 was one of the scariest science-fiction movies ever made, “Aliens” was one of the most intense, “Alien 3” was one of the most infinitely depressing, and “Alien Resurrection” was the slimiest by far. When Ridley Scott, who directed “Alien,” returned to the franchise with “Prometheus,” he presented us with a film containing, as he said, “strands of ‘Alien’ DNA in it,” but it was also designed to have its own mythology and ideas while existing in the same cinematic universe. Each time, the filmmakers brought their own unique vision to this franchise and succeeded in creating something daring, and at times maddening, which no other franchise would have dared pulled off. As for the “Alien vs Predator” movies, the less said, the better.

Now Scott returns again to the franchise with another prequel, “Alien: Covenant,” which looks to be a return to basics after the mixed reaction “Prometheus” received. Sure enough, composer Jed Kurzel’s score starts off with a taste of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from “Alien” which has the audience feeling like they are entering familiar territory. But Kurzel’s music also has the music Marc Streitenfeld created for “Prometheus,” and it made me realize Scott was not about to leave the themes he explored previously in the dust.

“Alien: Covenant” picks up ten years after “Prometheus” as we come across the spaceship Covenant making its way to a remote planet where colonists intend to start a new life. These plans go awry when a neutrino blast hits the ship, killing some of the passengers and leaving the survivors in a state of devastation they cannot be expected to quickly recover from. Suddenly they intercept a human radio transmission from a nearby planet not on their charts and despite some objections, which of course are ignored, they change course to investigate. From there, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen.

Scott, as usual, works visual wonders along with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski which put us right into the action instead of just viewing it from a distance. Seeing these humans arrive on a planet we know many of them will not leave, not in one piece anyway, jacks up the tension in no time at all, and he still knows how to make those xenomorphs look more vicious than the average sci-fi creatures.

At the same time, he continues the themes of “Prometheus” with the assistance of one of its best actors, Michael Fassbender (god he has an awesome last name!). Fassbender returns as David, the synthetic android who is revealed to be alive and in one piece on this new planet, and he also plays Walter, another synthetic android assigned to look after the crew of the Covenant. Seeing David and Walter share scenes with one another prove to be some of this movie’s most fascinating for me as Fassbender makes you forget special effects were involved in him having a conversation with himself.

The balance between the themes of “Prometheus” and the typically visceral action of the average “Alien” movie is a tricky one, and Scott manages to pull it off for the most part. Still, it will be interesting to see how audiences react to this one as they may like certain parts of “Alien: Covenant” more than others.

I do wish Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper had given more attention to the characters here as many of them appear to be too one-dimensional for this movie’s own good. This franchise thrives on our getting to know these characters as individuals we can relate to, but many of them appear to exist solely for the xenomorphs to rip apart limb from limb. Some characters fare better than others, but the rest of the pack deserved more attention than they got.

Katherine Waterston, unforgettable in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” has a big challenge here as she is essentially playing the Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley role as terraforming expert Daniels Branson. What I really admired about Waterston’s work here is how she never invites easy comparison to Weaver, and I never bothered spending time comparing the two actresses as the movie unfolded before me. Waterston fully embraces her character’s complex emotions as she is forced to deal with an unexpected tragedy which would easily wreck another, and she turns Daniels into formidable warrior long before the movie’s furious climax.

Another actor I got a kick out of seeing here was Danny McBride who plays the chief pilot of the Covenant, Tennessee. McBride is best known for his no-holds-barred comedic performances in “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” “The Foot Fist Way,” and the HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” and several critics have said they felt he was miscast here. I completely disagree as he brings the kind of the down-to-earth character the “Alien” movies can’t exist without as well as a subtlety which makes his emotions feel genuine and never faked. Once again, I truly believe that if you can do comedy, you can do drama.

I also have to give Billy Crudup a lot of credit for taking a character like the self-serious man of faith, Christopher Oram, who lacks the confidence a leader should have and making him into someone more human than any other actor could have. I say this because this kind of character usually comes across as totally annoying and infinitely idiotic, but Crudup succeeds in making Christopher down to earth and more empathetic than you might expect. And those scenes he has with Fassbender in the latter half? Priceless.

Does “Alien: Covenant” reach the exhilarating heights of the first two “Alien” movies? No, but I wasn’t surprised it didn’t. We have long since gotten used to these vicious creatures to where they aren’t as terrifying as when we first met them. Still, I found “Alien: Covenant” to be a pulse-pounding ride with strong performances, a sleek design and the kind of stunning look you can always expect from the average Ridley Scott film. It pays homage not just to its predecessors, but also to “Blade Runner” as well, and it has an infinitely unnerving conclusion which reminds us all that in space, no one can hear you scream.

Just try to go into it with an open mind. There is a bit of the old here which I know fans will enjoy, but there is also a lot of thought put into the story which you don’t often get with the usual summer blockbuster.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Selma

selma-movie-poster

Had “Selma” been released a number of years ago, people would probably just see it as another movie which chronicles a historical moment which has long since passed us by. But with all the upheaval in places like Ferguson, Missouri where violence against people of color is increasing substantially and the Voting Rights Act having taken a very unnecessary hit, this movie could not be timelier. What we see in “Selma” now feels like prologue as the fight for equal rights continues on to this very day. By now we should very well know we’re not living in a post-racial society.

“Selma” takes us back to the year 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and several others led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to obtain equal voting rights for African Americans. It was tough times indeed as Dr. King faces an uphill battle with everyone including President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who is not quick to pass a Voting Rights Act as he is still dealing with civil unrest in the South which he is desperately trying to get under control. But King knows this is not an issue that can wait much longer to be addressed.

I have got to start off by saying David Oyelowo is a powerhouse in his portrayal of Dr. King, and he holds our attention completely from the very first moment he appears onscreen. It should be noted how Oyelowo campaigned for this role for seven years and managed to keep it even after the original director, Lee Daniels, departed the project. I have seen Oyelowo do memorable work in movies like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Lincoln” and “A Most Violent Year,” but I couldn’t find a trace of him in “Selma.” It felt like I was really watching Martin Luther King Jr. resurrected and walking among us again. Not once does Oyelowo succumb to doing a mere impersonation of the man who had a dream we still want to see become a reality. There’s a saying that in the theater you play a character and in film you are the character, and Oyelowo is definitely the man here.

The other big star of “Selma” is its director Ava DuVernay who brings this ever so important story to life so vividly. Granted, in some ways her presentation of the 60’s feels a little routine, and some scenes feel one-sided when they shouldn’t. Her portrayal of the marches, however, is appropriately devastating as she makes you feel ever blow inflicted by those afraid of change. These scenes do not leave the mind easily. King and his supporters are determined to protest in a non-violent way, and it’s hard not to feel for them when their supporters are being beaten senselessly. Deep down you want to see them fight back against the brutality even though we’re aware to do so will be giving the opposition far more ammunition than they deserve.

“Selma” also features a wealth of great performances from actors like Oprah Winfrey who channels her inner Sofia (the character she played in “The Color Purple”) for her role as Annie Lee Cooper who, at the movie’s start, is cruelly denied the opportunity to register to vote. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson as he adds layers to the former President which the screenplay doesn’t always give him. Tim Roth also turns in a strong performance as George Wallace, the always welcome Wendell Pierce is excellent as Hosea Williams, and Dylan Baker is ever so effective as J. Edgar Hoover to where I ended up trying to remember the actor’s name while watching this film.

Another performance worth giving special note to is Carmen Ejogo’s as Coretta Scott King. Ejogo played this role previously in the 2011 movie “Boycott.” She and Oyelowo have a great scene together when she questions him about his alleged infidelity, and no music score is needed to empower it as DuVernay wisely focuses on the actors for all they are worth. Watching these actors here makes for one of the most compelling scenes I have seen in any 2014 movie.

Is “Selma” accurate to what actually happened in history? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. All that matters to me is that it is true to the spirit of the facts more than anything else. We are beyond the point where we should expect movies “based on a true story” to be completely accurate to what actually occurred because dramatic considerations have to be taken into effect. While some argue Johnson was more open to King’s request for voting rights than he was shown to be here, there’s no denying the one most passionate about this issue was King himself. Whether or not this movie fails on a historical accuracy level, it does succeed on a dramatic one.

Having said all this, I kind of wished “Selma” didn’t paint a number of its character in such broad strokes. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” which observed its characters, regardless of color or nationality, with a lot more thoughtfulness and dimension. The fact that “Selma” doesn’t quite succeed in doing this is a bit frustrating, but it doesn’t take away from the powerful effect the movie will have on those who take the time to see it.

“Selma” doesn’t just take us back to an important period in history; it reminds us of the things we as Americans should be fighting for. The movie shows many people of different races and religions joining Dr. King in this fight for an equality no one should have to fight for in this country. But here we are years later, and it turns out the fight is far from over. Once again, we have a lot to learn from history.

* * * ½ out of * * * *