It Comes at Night and the Power of Ambiguity

We Never Go Out at Night

*This post contains plot spoilers.*

“Next time I pick the movie.” That’s the first thing I heard after the screen cut to black and the credits began. Getting up from my seat I turned around to see a couple sitting behind me on the very edge of the row, cuddled up like so many couples do in horror movies with a large bucket of half-eaten popcorn wedged between them. Clearly the woman’s pithy comment indicated she wasn’t entertained by what she just saw and it pierced my heart just as much as I’m sure it did her partner’s. It quickly dawned on me that although we watched the same movie, we had two totally different experiences. This is It Comes at Night encapsulated. Night is the sophomore film of 28-year-old Trey Edward Shults who directed last year’s breakout indie Krisha, which starred his aunt in the title role and was shot in his family home on a budget of $30,000. Despite the modest production, Shults proved himself more than capable of building tension and wringing out honest emotions from cinematic drama. Shults has considerably more resources this time around and he gets the most out of his reported $3 million budget.

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Joel Edgerton as “Paul”

But the key to appreciating this film rests on something more important than any production notes or the filmmaker’s background – something fundamental. Ambiguity in cinema has long been a staple of visual storytelling. Filmmakers live and die by the axiom “show, don’t tell.” Films that spoon-feed the audience exposition rather than reveal character through action often feel forced and somewhat cheap. On the other hand, films that reveal too little can leave viewers feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. Some of the greatest films of all time were once maligned in their day for the latter tactic (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Taxi Driver, Fight Club). Personally, I LOVE the film that asks more questions than it answers. But the more I speak with friends and family about the idea of closure (or lack thereof) in storytelling, the more I realize I’m in the minority on the subject.

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Riley Keough as “Kim” and Christopher Abbott as “Will”

First, the setup. Joel Edgerton plays “Paul,” a once ordinary school teacher who is forced to border up his house and shield his family from all sorts of threats. After losing his father-in-law to a mysterious disease (a disease which is implied to have spread throughout the major cities), we learn that this world is bleak and brutal. Paul always carries with him a weapon in addition to a gas mask and lives by a strict set of rules to protect his wife and son. It becomes quickly clear that he lives like this because he has to, not because he wants to. All of his precautions are due to a lack of understanding about what is really going on but he’s not about to take any chances. When another man comes crashing through his front door in search of supplies, Paul is faced with a difficult decision: either take the man and his family in, or leave him to die in the woods.  After the two families learn to coexist with each other for several weeks, an incident one late night forces them to have a difficult conversation. Paul’s son Travis, who up to this point has been struggling to sleep due to his frequent nightmares, wanders out of his room and find’s Will’s son Andrew passed out on the floor. He returns Andrew to his room only to find the red door downstairs opened, the same red door that Paul warned must never be opened. Travis suggests that Andrew could have opened the door while sleepwalking and may have inadvertently become sick in the process. When Will and Kim protest, Paul suggests that they all retreat to their own parts of the house and avoid contact for a day. So who opened the door? What’s with Travis’ nightmares? Is Andrew really sick or was Travis the one infected all along? What was Stanley barking at in the woods? These are all questions you may be asking yourself after you finish the film.

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Stanley barking at whatever is in the woods

This is where Night expertly toys with horror audiences’ expectations. Whereas a less confident director would have attempted to explain the virus strain that’s killing off the world or introduce a supernatural element to spice up the proceedings, Shults trusts his audience enough not to give away any clues as to what has brought civilization to this extreme. Instead what unravels is a survivalist family drama set against the backdrop of deadly virus. More interestingly, the “It” in the title can refer to many things, none of which are explicitly spelled out. “It” can be Travis’ nightmares or simply fear in general. To be clear, this is horror by way of paranoia and tension. There are no monsters in this world, no grand scheme, no context of the ravaged world outside. Just two families trying to make it in a world gone awry. And when the virus does eventually make it’s way into the house, it isn’t entirely clear how. That’s the key to great suspense. We learn of new information at the same time the principal characters do. The audience is not ahead of the characters therefore we experience the story alongside the protagonists step by step. It’s a brilliant technique to ratchet up the stakes and make us invested in the story, as if the events on-screen were happening to us and not just in front of us.

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Kelvin Harrison Jr. as “Travis”

Please understand that all of this is deliberate. Shults is well aware that his story may leave some scratching their heads and reaching for answers. All of these unresolved questions are not some grave miscalculation or oversight. Instead they are launching pads to explore larger themes amidst all the dread. In interviews about the film, Shults explains how he wrote the script for Night after the intense grief of seeing his biological father succumb to cancer. A similar sense of loss and tragedy is palpable in the film. The character of Travis can be seen as a surrogate for Shults’ outlook on the world. Both of them witness the loss of a father-figure in their life and both share a similar apprehension about the right way to handle trying circumstances. If the ending leaves you cold and incomplete then that’s what the director wanted you to feel. You’ve successfully entered the world that the film has spent the entire run time trying to establish. The beauty of this style of filmmaking is that, when done effectively, the film will linger with you long after you see it. Psychological terror in particular can do that. It Comes at Night is a film I’ve spent a long time reconciling in my head. It wasn’t necessarily the best film I’ve seen this year, but definitely the one I’ve thought about the most.

Regarding his classic Nights of Cabiria, Federico Fellini once explained in an interview, “The film doesn’t have a resolution in the sense that there is a final scene in which the story reaches a conclusion so definitive that you no longer have to worry about Cabiria. I myself have worried about her fate ever since.” With this sentence Fellini beautifully summarizes the power of ambiguity. If the story doesn’t conclude in the nice and tidy way that would bring you closure by the time the credits roll then it is incumbent upon us the audience to continue the narrative in our minds to bring the resolution that we seek.

It Comes at Night is out now in wide release

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