Native Son (2019)

Native Son’s distribution trajectory from film festival darling to straight-to-HBO oblivion is a curious, but increasingly familiar path. As with other recent A24 acquisitions like Under the Silver Lake and The Hole in the Ground, Native Son earned some immediate critical buzz out of film festivals like Sundance but was ultimately quietly shoveled off to home distribution & little accompanying fanfare. For its initial half hour, I mostly understood that decision. The film starts off as a fairly standard Sundance Drama™ about a listless teen protagonist who’s struggling with solidifying his identity and his place in the modern world. However, the final hour of that drama is a different beast entirely. Once Native Son ratchets up the dramatic tension of its central crisis, it transforms into an incredibly tense nightmare with thunderously discomforting things to say about race and class in America. If you afford it your patience, it gradually reveals itself as a picture that cannot be easily dismissed – if not only for the toll it leaves on your blood pressure – no matter how quietly it was siphoned off to television by its distributor.

Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders stars as a punk rock Chicagoan bike messenger who feels out of step with his local black community because of his D.I.Y. anarchist values and the absence of his deceased father. Rejecting the riskier (and less-than-legal) money-making schemes of his peers but in desperate need of cash to help support his family, he takes a job as a chauffer for a wealthy white family in a drastically different corner of Chicago. As soon as he steps foot in that mansion the film transforms into an incredibly tense thriller with no possible positive outcome for a character we naturally like but can’t prevent from making life-destroying decisions. It’s like watching a version of Get Out with all the tension-deflating humor & genre thrills removed, leaving the audience on the verge of screaming out in warning just so that someone says something to this lost soul before he loses what little he has. His relationships with his mother, his friends, his siblings, and his girlfriend (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne, another Barry Jenkins alum) all register as standard film festival fodder, but the intensity of any scene where he is subject to the whims, power, and boredom of his white employers makes Native Son feel like a white-knuckle thriller that won’t be satisfied until it chokes the life out of America’s most shameful ills.

Native Son is both elevated and hindered by its literary source material, a 1940s novel that has maintained a disturbing level of relevance over the decades. The lofty dialogue that derives from that source both affords the film the operatic heights of a stage play Tragedy and opens it up to some fairly eyeroll-worthy inner-monologue narration that dampers the full potential of its tension & poetry. As vague & empty as that narration can be, Sanders is generally excellent in the role – especially in how he performatively deepens his voice to sound like an authoritative man instead of the vulnerable child that he truly is. His performance and the tension of his employment under a family outside his character’s social boundaries even lead the film to some truly harrowing places. The titular novel, then, mostly becomes just one component of a larger cache of allusions to black art that the film gathers while sketching out the persona of its young punk protagonist: Brad Brains, DEATH, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, etc. Native Son does eventually work its way up to joining the artistic themes & ambitions of those sources of inspiration; you just have to give it time to break free from its Sundance Drama beginnings to evolve into a full-blown American nightmare. I guess A24 assumes most of its potential audience just won’t have that patience. Honestly, they’re probably right, but it’s still always frustrating to see these solid festival-circuit indies fade so quickly into digital streaming obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Defining “A24 Horror”

By now, I hope everyone’s learned to call bullshit whenever they hear the term “elevated horror.” Audiences who checked out from the genre back in the dismal days of the torture-happy, nu-metal scored 2000s might have to do mental gymnastics to justify enjoying high-profile entries into a canon they’ve deliberately chosen to ignore in the years since, but anyone who’s been paying attention in the last decade knows that the days of the genre being defined by Saw & Hostel sequels are long behind us (well, mostly). Horror has been enjoying a huge creative upswing in recent years, offering young & hungry directors room to experiment in a creative medium that has a built-in commercial potential, an increasing rarity outside the $100+ mil blockbuster landscape. Some lingering genre-bias held over from past eras of torture porn & slasher sequel exhaustion makes “horror” a dirty word in some critical circles, however, which has been inspiring some people to justify removing the descriptor from titles they believe to be a cut above the norm. This goes beyond labeling any horror film with an attention to atmosphere & craft as “elevated” too. There was an attempt to reframe Get Out as a “social thriller,” an entirely new genre descriptor that willfully ignores that film’s continuation (and subversion) of classic works like Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and the better half of Wes Craven’s catalog. While promoting his recent film A Quiet Place, actor-director John Krasinsky talked down the genre as much as he could, saying he sought to make “a good movie,” not a horror movie, as if those terms were mutually exclusive (not to mention that his film is about as genre-faithful as they come). As these examples pile up (see also: The Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, Raw, etc.) terms like “elevated horror” have become so widely applied to so many disparate films that they’re entirely useless as descriptors. They’re basically just frustrated admissions that there are horror movies with artistic merit, which, duh.

Something that’s much easier to define is the term “A24 horror,” which has a very specific connotation, but still embodies what people typically mean when they say “elevated horror.” The production/distribution company A24 has consistently attached themselves to some of the film industry’s most exciting creative projects in the last few years, including some of my all-time favorite works in any genre: 20th Century Women, The Florida Project, Good Time, Moonlight, Spring Breakers, etc. Their taste for well-crafted, thematically daring cinema extends to the horror films they distribute as well, works that often fall under the supposed “elevated horror” umbrella. Let’s just assume that when someone says “elevated,” what they mean is “artsy-fartsy”: movies that value atmospheric dread & experiments in craft over traditional horror genre payoffs like masked killers & jump scares. What’s helpful about using “A24 horror” as a lens to discuss this artsy-fartsy horror style is that it narrows down the pile of titles worth discussion. A24 is a small company that only puts out so many titles a year in any genre, but their selection is so specific & consistent that it does have its own distinct, identifiable vibe. So, what are the films of the “A24 horror” canon? The films Tusk & Green Room are a little too traditionalist to qualify, as they deal more in familiar genre payoffs than the atmospheric dread that typically guides A24’s artsy-fartsy style. A Ghost Story, Swiss Army Man, and Life After Beth are all morbid genre deviations that could be described as horror-adjacent, but don’t quite comfortably fit in the genre’s parameters. Similarly, the films Krisha, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Enemy all nail the atmospheric dread aspect of the “A24 horror” subgenre, but use that effect outside the confines of strict horror classification, potentially excluding them from the conversation. When we discuss “A24 horror” as a descriptor, then, we’re only really discussing four titles: The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, It Comes at Night, and Hereditary. Those four titles also happen to be among the best horror films in recent memory.

As a pair, The Witch & The Blackcoat’s Daughter feel like the baseline definition of what “A24 horror” looks & feels like. Both films deal directly in demonic, occultist genre tropes with a very long-established tradition within horror cinema lore, dating at least as far back as Häxan. They also both rely much heavier on dread & tone than the more immediate, tangible payoffs of more commercially-minded horror films like A Quiet Place & IT. What distinguishes them from one another is how A24 chose to distribute them. The Blackcoat’s Daughter had a years-long, troubled road from when it was a film festival darling titled February to its short-lived theatrical run & eventual fade into streaming platform oblivion (which is a shame, because its sound design & visual mood really deserve to be experienced as big & loud as possible). It’s sad to say so, but that’s a fairly standard, appropriate release model for a modern artsy-fartsy picture with limited appeal. Selling The Blackcoat’s Daughter as a wide-release genre picture, as if it were a Blumhouse-produced Purge or Insidious sequel, would have been a little disingenuous, essentially tricking fans of traditional jump scares, monsters, and gore into watching a quietly disturbing art film. That’s exactly what A24 did with The Witch. It may have been Swampflix’s Top Film of 2016, but wide-release horror audiences (generally) hated that film’s artsy-fartsy guts. The exact limited imagination of what horror can be that inspire the genre’s detractors who whip out defensive, apologetic terms like “elevated horror” & “social thriller” also turned supposed horror enthusiasts against The Witch for not delivering the exact genre thrills they expect from wide-release entries in the genre. A24 also sold The Witch as a terrifying spookfest with wide appeal, something I personally appreciated for being able to see it large & loud (with a vocally unappreciative crowd), but left a lot of first-weekend horror audiences feeling ripped-off. It was in that wide divide between artsy-fartsy cinema nerds who appreciated that film’s effective sense of atmospheric dread and pissed-off horror traditionalists who found the film to be a total bore that the “A24 horror” genre was born that very weekend.

If The Witch & The Blackcoat’s Daughter established the “A24 horror” baseline, then the more recent works It Comes at Night & Hereditary have served to test its boundaries. Personally, It Comes at Night is my favorite film of the pair, if not only for its stubborn doubling-down on The Witch’s least commercially appealing impulses. It Comes at Night is a film about dread. More specifically, it’s about a very particular kind of grief & dread that only hits you late at night when you’re unable to fall asleep to relieve the pain of your own oppressive, obsessive thoughts. That’s a daringly abstract villain for a monster movie, which left many audiences pissed, since they were expecting the “it” from the film’s title to be a physically-manifested monster (which is essentially what A Quiet Place turned out to be a year later). Hereditary plays with the opposite end of the “A24 horror” spectrum, lightening up on the atmospheric dread to delve further into its family-in-crisis drama through a tangible, horrifically violent threat, even if a supernatural one. Guess what? Wide audiences still despised it, saddling the film with a D+ CinemaScore for not being “scary” in a traditional, easily identifiable way. A large portion of that reaction is due directly to A24’s marketing, which repeated the often employed claim that Hereditary is “the scariest horror event since The Exorcist” (a tactic last used by Paramount to promote mother!, hilariously). Hereditary is a long, weird journey into bizarrely-expressed themes of grief & familial resentment, which could also be said about It Comes at Night. The difference is that Hereditary is much more accommodating to a wider audience, especially in a go-for-broke third act that delivers the exact genre film thrills traditional horror enthusiasts supposedly want to see, achieved through relentlessly nightmarish imagery. They (mostly) hated it anyway, which is just as much an intrinsic part of “A24 horror” as atmospheric dread at this point.

In just four films, “A24 horror” has become such a distinctly identifiable tone that you can see it echoed in other genre titles A24 never had a hand in releasing: The Neon Demon, Goodnight Mommy, Tale of Tales, etc. Calling these works “elevated horror” is an insult to just as worthy genre entries that don’t focus entirely on atmospheric dread & metaphorical subtext, as it frames them as “lowly” by comparison. The term “A24 horror” is much more useful, as there’s a specificity to its implications. Although A24 distributed the Kevin Smith horror “comedy” Tusk, that’s far from the first title that comes to mind when you hear the term “A24 horror”, maybe even behind other titles the company never touched. “A24 horror” is distinct, succinct, and doesn’t insult other, more crowd-easing genre entries in the process. I’d even prefer use of the term “artsy-fartsy” over “elevated,” since it’s at least honest. There’s nothing inherently worthier about a horror film just because it focuses on craft & atmosphere over delivering the goods. In fact, since we appreciators of the “A24 horror” subgenre appear to be in the minority and most audiences are displeased with what that approach offers, it’s arguable that this end of the genre spectrum is the lower, less-respectable medium.

-Brandon Ledet

It Comes at Night (2017)

In his debut feature, Krisha, young director Trey Edward Shults crafted an incredible level of tension & terror by staging a dramatic Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house. The wait to see what Shults could do with a bigger budget and a more straightforward horror tone has been blissfully short. His follow-up feature, It Comes at Night, has been pushed into wide release by modern indie distribution giants A24 and boasts recognizable actors like Joel Edgerton & Riley Keough (unlike Krisha‘s cast, which was mostly filled out by Shults & his family). First weekend horror audiences have been loudly disappointed by the film, saddling it with a “D” CinemaScore for not living up to their genre expectations, the same way a mass of people vocally derided The Witch, (our favorite film of 2016) upon its initial release. Do not be fooled by the grumbles & whines. Shults’s command of tension & terror is just as impressive here as it is in Krisha, even continuing that debut’s focus on familial discord & grief. The exciting thing is seeing that terror blown up to a slick, multi-million dollar film budget instead of a self-propelled scrappy indie production. 

Two young families struggle to survive a post-apocalyptic American landscape devastated by a deadly virus, a plague. This isn’t the outbreak horror of the more narrative-focused The Girl With All the Gifts, however. There are no zombies, no monsters, no transformations. The infected merely die, rot, and spread disease. The two families we get to know in this bleak scenario attempt to find peace & optimism in domestic cohabitation. They keep telling themselves everything will be fine, but there’s no indication that anything can or will ever improve. Edgerton’s paterfamilias often commands the room, setting firm rules on how to keep infected strangers & animals locked out of their peaceful, isolated cabin in the woods. It’s his teenage son who acts as the film’s de facto protagonist, though. Late at night, once the comfort of domestic routines and keeping busy fades away, the teen boy’s mind begins to wander into darkness. Anxieties over survival, sexuality, and sorrow for those already lost haunt him in hallucinatory dreams and late night walks through the house’s eerie hallways. What comes at night is not any kind of physically manifested evil, but rather an extreme grief for what’s already been lost and a dread for the violent, depressing end that’s fated to come in the near future.

Dream logic and nightmare imagery are a cinematic pleasure I never tire of and Shults does a fantastic job of building tension in these moments of subconscious dread. If It Comes at Night can be understood as the horror film A24 marketed it to be, those genre beats are wholly contained in the teen protagonist’s stress-induced nightmares. Nightmare imagery is not exactly unique territory for horror, though. Its presence in the genre stretches at least as far back as the German Expressionism movement of the silent era. What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Shults inexplicably stirs up that same level of anxious terror in Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford in his debut: beauty. The nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

Not everything in It Comes at Night is disjointed dream logic & slow burn focus on atmospheric tone. There’s plenty of tense dialogue, creepy treks through the woods, gunfire, and desperate scavenging for food & clean water. Often, the film’s late night eeriness is used to quietly lull the audience into a false sense of safety before a loud, disruptive threat explodes onscreen. It can even be a visually ugly film when the moment calls for it, often lighting trees & hallways like a crime scene via rifle-mounted flashlights. I’m not surprised that first weekend audiences were frustrated by their expectations of a straightforward genre film, though. Edgerton is an amazing screen presence who once again wholly disappears into his role, somewhat anchoring the film in dramatic moments of disagreement with his wife & son. There’s no explicit explanation of his demeanor or plans, however, just like how there’s no expositional explanation of the history of the plague that has trapped his family in that cabin in the woods. The highlights of the film are more image-focused & ethereal: a triangle-shaped shadow, complex tree roots & branches, sweeping pan shots & drone-aided arials, an intense fixation on a red door that separates the family from the plague lurking outside.

The subtlety of It Comes at Night‘s overwhelming potency is never more apparent than it is at its violent climax. That’s when its aspect ratio gradually, almost unnoticeably constricts its action into an increasingly cramped frame that gets more constrictive by the second until there’s no room to breathe. It’s in that climax that you get the sense that Shults may just be a master in the making. Let’s just hope that the memory of that “D” CinemaScore fades away quickly enough for more production money to flow the director’s way. If he can craft such memorably terrifying, personally revelatory works on budgets this minuscule, I’d love to see what he could do with total financial freedom, general audiences be damned.

-Brandon Ledet