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

Krisha (2016)

fourstar

As I mentioned in my less-than-thrilled review of Knight of Cups, I just don’t have the capacity within me to fall in love with a Terrence Malick flick. Yet, I keep returning to the director’s work because there’s so much promise in his raw material. Turns out the answer to this self-conflict might actually be to follow the career of Malick’s collaborators rather than to keep returning to a director that continually burns me. Tree of Life was one of my all-time most disappointing trips to the theater, but it did introduce me to the wonderful talents of actor Jessica Chastain & cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, both of whom I have been keeping a close eye on ever since. What’s even more surprising, though, is the out of nowhere talent of young writer/director Trey Edward Shults, who had worked on the sets of Malick productions Tree of Life, Weightless, Voyage of Time, To the Wonder, and *shudder* Knight of Cups, but just made his own debut film Krisha. In his very first feature film effort the young talent has, in my my mind, beaten Malick at his own game. Malick has an undeniable talent at constructing an image & a hypnotic tone, but his intensifying disinterest in narrative has left his films dull & meaningless experiences for me. Trey Edward Shults obviously paid close attention to how to evoke the potency of Malick’s raw material, but repurposes it for a clear, deeply personal narrative that makes its impact count for something. Krisha doesn’t always resembles the tone poem hypnosis of a Malick work, but when it chooses to use that cinematic mode as a storytelling tool it makes the impact count for more than any 30 seconds of a Malick film ever has in the past.

A lot of what drives home the impact of Krisha is the heart aching sincerity. The film’s central story is based on a real life tragedy in Shults’s family, stars his family, and is filmed in his parent’s home. This is an undeniably cheap-looking production, but the pain & anguish it reveals transcends its means. A woman returns to the cautiously open arms of her anxious family after a ten year separation & estrangement. There’s a mystery to the past trauma that has kept the estranged family member, Krisha, as an arm’s length black sheep, an ambiguous separation represented by the image of a deformed finger & the occasional tense accusation of her “selfishness” & “abandonment.” Although the exact circumstances of Krisha’s departure are never made explicitly clear, she does carry the faux-spiritual air of a recovering addict, calling her GPS “a lying bitch” in one breath & then claiming that she’s “working on becoming a more spiritual person” in the next. As the mounting tension of her tentative return to the fold escalates along with the stress inherent to orchestrating even the most congenial Thanksgiving meal, Krisha seems to be slowly barreling towards a relapse into abuse (both substance & familial), like a turkey slowly reaching the right temperature on an oven rack. The layering of tension in Krisha is methodical & deceptively casual. Once the pressure is released, however, it’s difficult to think back to a moment when the film felt at all civil or tightly contained. The Malickian looseness of the film’s final act is lightly suggested throughout, but once the Shults goes for broke with the tactic it almost feels as if the film had always been that way, just as its titular antagonist had never truly been “spiritual” or reformed.

Besides Shults’s strong command of image & tone, a lot of what makes Krisha stand out is the titular performance from his real-life aunt, Krisha Fairchild. Her stressed-out addict’s faux hippie costume of serenity & acceptance is a bravely difficult balance to toe, especially considering the metatextual factoid that she’s portraying a real-life member of her family. Krisha’s pathetic attempts to make herself useful in the kitchen or to personally connect with individual members of a family she does not know would be absolutely devastating if it weren’t coming from such a phony, selfish place. Other non-actors in the film give memorably great, effective performances, most notably a grandmother figure who makes the horrors of dementia feel way too real, but this is undeniably Krisha Fairchild’s show. The film opens with her starkly framed & vulnerably staring down the audience, somewhat similar to Thomasin in The Witch, and the performance gets no more vain or glamorous from there. It’s a truly unique mode of self-effacement for grim, unblinking, deeply personal art.

I may have been overselling the Malick vibes of Krisha a little too hard in my opening screed here, mostly based on the fact that I watched it so soon after Knight of Cups, a film it surpasses in intensity & impact with so few brushstrokes, not to mention that Shults had worked on both films. Without that connection you could surely find other works for easy comparison points. The arrhythmic score & cacophonous soundtrack of dogs barking & familial chattering recalls the insufferable sonic tension Paul Thomas Anderson punishes his audience with in Punch Drunk Love. The mood-evoking images of a turkey grotesquely getting prepared for the oven & general search for an open-ended, eerie tone brought me back to the terror in the ordinary established in this year’s surprise knockout punch The Fits. If you go into Krisha expecting a Malick derivative you’re going to be severely underwhelmed & agitated. Instead of copying the director’s feature length search of tone poem submersion in pure, disjointed imagery, Krisha uses that narrative approach as one of many tools in its back pocket, only to be wielded when it’s most useful.

For a first time filmmaker with an obvious eye for powerful imagery, Trey Edward Shults shows a surprising amount of restraint, saving his showier moments of technical prowess for when they best serve the story he’s telling. That story is a familial drama turned into a psychological horror of ambiguous, tension, one Shults & his family apparently had already lived through once off-camera. It’s a fascinating debut that far exceeds its obvious financial limitations and I’d much rather watch whatever the young talent has lined up next then another navel gazer of a slog like Knight of Cups, a film that’s only proven its value by inspiring better art in other works.

-Brandon Ledet