Friends, let’s you and I talk about movie theaters. They’re awful right? The floors are sticky, of course. People are always the worst and going to the movies is a situation wherein you have to trust other people not to be dickholes which almost always leads to a bad time. Even though the lights dim, there are still other lights all over the damn place – little strings of colored lights along the stairs, bright fluorescent exit signs, people’s phone screens – look, I get it, we’re addicted to our phones, fine, WHATEVER, but if you’re gonna look at your phone in the theater at least turn the brightness down! And in a very quiet, subdued movie like It Comes at Night you can hear the noise pollution from the theater next door where Tom Cruise is trying to kill a mummy by, I guess, blowing up entire city blocks. That’s what it sounded like anyway. So yes, going to the theater is a very unpleasant experience most of the time. My viewing of It Comes at Night wasn’t exactly ruined because of this, but I think only because the movie was so good.
There are, I think, many ways that It Comes at Night can be interpreted. It’s a hot take on the current political environment where fear and paranoia are king; it’s a missive on race relations; it’s a movie about coming of age in a world where your parents are holding it together just as poorly as you; and it’s a movie about loneliness. It’s all of these things and probably more. Part of what makes it so good is that you can find in it whatever you want. There are no bad guys, there is no real monster, there’s no one thing that you can point at and say “Yep! Kill it! Kill that and everything will get better.” It’s a disturbing movie, but not for the reasons the trailer would have you think. Mostly it’s just very sad. And, as always, spoilers ya’ll.
The movie follows a family hiding in a cabin in the woods while a mysterious disease spreads across the globe (supposedly) killing much of the population (supposedly). We don’t know much about what’s going on. We never hear the specifics of the disease or how widely spread it is and we only see hints of its devastation. The movie begins with the main character Travis and his dad Paul killing Travis’s grandfather and burning his body. They do this in the woods while wearing gasmasks and protective gear. The grandpa is only on screen for about two minutes but we can see his body is covered in sores and his breathing is distinctly labored. This will be important later. Travis does not handle this well and he begins having nightmares about his grandfather.
After this scene we’re given a brief glimpse of the family’s life in the cabin. Things are not great. Travis listens outside of his parent’s bedroom as they have a tense conversation and he seemingly only has a connection to his grandfather’s dog Stanley. Travis man…Travis makes me sad. Life’s not good.
Soon the family wakes up to find someone attempting to break into their house. Paul subdues him and ties him up outside where he screams all night giving Travis another nightmare. In the morning they interrogate him and find out that the intruder, Will, was looking for supplies for his wife and son who are also holed up in an abandoned house in the woods. Eventually Paul agrees to help Will by giving him supplies but Paul’s wife Sarah convinces him to allow Will and his family to move in with them because they have food and animals and it would make more sense for the two families to work together.
Paul and Will are attacked on the way to the house and Paul thinks Will had something to do with it but Will convinces him otherwise. They get back and for a little while the two families are somewhat happy. The only real rule of the house is that the red door downstairs – the only way in or out of the house – stay closed at all times. Travis listens outside of Will and his wife Kim’s bedroom one night while they play with their son and laughs – a stark contrast to his reaction to his own parents. The happiness is shattered however when Stanley runs away while the men are chopping wood. Travis is, understandably, very upset; especially because he sees something in the woods and hears Stanley’s barking abruptly stop.
Later he is woken up from another nightmare to hear laborious breathing outside his bedroom. He finds Will’s son Andrew in his grandfather’s old room, breathing harshly – either having a nightmare or sick, YOU DECIDE. He takes Andrew back to his room and hears something downstairs. He goes to investigate and finds the red door open with strange noises coming from behind it. He wakes up his dad and Paul and Will go to investigate where they find Stanley bleeding. Paul says he’s sick and won’t let Travis see the body and he kills the dog. Later, while the two families discuss the events of the night it comes out that Travis had found Andrew in the middle of the night and he thinks he opened the red door. Will says that that isn’t possible and Kim says she think Andrew must have opened the door while half asleep. Things go as poorly as you suspect.
The families separate for a few days to make sure no one is sick. Travis wakes up from a nightmare of his grandpa sitting at the foot of his bed and hears Will and Kim talking about how they need to leave. He doesn’t know exactly what they’re saying but he thinks Andrew is sick. Paul and Sarah go to confront them. Shit breaks down, people are yelling, and Will, Kim, and Andrew all wind up dead. Later, Travis is looking in the mirror after throwing up – in a scene that directly mirrors his last nightmare – and we cut to his mom comforting him while he writhes sick in bed. The final shot of the movie is Paul and Sarah sitting across from each other, silent, and they look up at each other with suspicion and hate.
I wanted to do a full recap of the story to emphasize one thing: not a lot happens in the movie. If you go into it expecting a balls-out gore fest or a disgusting creature feature – as a suspect a lot of people will – then you’re going to be disappointed. The horror is personal and born more of sadness than scares. It’s a lonely movie about a lonely boy watching his family and his world fall apart. His father is not keeping it together, his mother shows little affection for either of them, and he is absolutely powerless.
There’s a very telling moment in the movie when Paul is having a discussion with Will about their lives before the plague. They’re talking about what they did for a living and Paul says he was a history professor. He then says, “Want to know anything about the Roman Empire?” It’s a very telling – albeit not subtle – statement considering how Paul runs his house. He’s an authoritarian, just shy of abusive and from the opening moments it’s clear that the ecosystem he and his family have built is very tenuous and he in particular is one big push away from cracking. The violence was inevitable; it was just a question of who would face it.
It Comes at Night is a good movie. It wraps itself in the trappings of horror movies and, as such, becomes fairly predictable but this isn’t a bad thing. It’s telling a familiar story to dig into deeper themes and watching these families, wishing they could sustain their brief happiness but knowing that it’s not going to end well is disturbing. Not a lot happens, but that’s almost the point. Everything’s already happened; we’re just watching the slow, sad death that follows.