J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

It Comes at Night: Armageddon Can be a Downer

Do sudden catastrophes bring out the best or the worst in people? If you actually read actual boots-on-the-ground eyewitness reports, you invariably hear much more about folks rising to the occasion and neighbors helping neighbors. However, national media reports, typically filed from New York, trafficking rumors heard at the press club, are more likely to tell tales of looting and the like. That pessimistic view of humanity in times of crisis is particularly pronounced in Hollywood disaster movies. It is fair to ask whether those films are conditioning us to be worse people than we would otherwise be. Such is also the case in this undefined bio-outbreak survivalist drama. It will be every family for themselves in Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The origins and vectors of the highly contagious doomsday virus are never really explained, but it seems to produce zombie like effects. Paul is the sort of person who comes hardwired to survive. When his father-in-law shows rabid signs of infection, Paul does what need to be done. He will do anything to protect his wife Sarah and their son Travis. However, when a desperate father invades their fortified cabin in search of water for his wife and young son, Paul is persuaded by Sarah to join forces with them. They have a water supply and a reinforced shelter. Will and Kim have livestock. It is a win-win for bother families. Yet, Paul still cautions Travis to only trust their nuclear family.

The two families get along swimmingly for about ten minutes, before suspicion starts to set in again, particularly on Paul’s part. Frankly, their falling out is as predictable as the phases of the moon. Indeed, that is the whole problem with ICAN. Bad things start to happen, simply because it is the time when those sorts of plot points typically surface in movies.

It is really a shame, because Shults does a masterful job setting the mood and establishing the mise en scene. In all honesty, ICAN is often remarkably intense, especially during the murky, flashlight-lit night-time scenes. There are times when the audience has no idea what is going on—and it is terrifying. Unfortunately, the fear and paranoia that fragments their alliance feels like it unfolds in agonizingly slow motion. In fact, it is so easy to see it coming, somebody ought to be able to stop it.

Still, Paul is the sort of tightly wound brooder Joel Edgerton was born to play. Frankly, it is an unfair dramatic mismatch when he hulks over twerpy Christopher Abbott as the supposedly wiry-tough Will. On the plus side, Kelvin Harrison Jr. shows real star potential as Travis, but rather frustratingly Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keogh are largely dramatically subservient to Edgerton and Abbott, as Sarah and Kim, respectively. At least Mikey is rock-solid dependable as Travis’s loyal dog Stanley (but sensitive viewers should not get too attached).

Shults and cinematography Drew Daniels masterfully control what we see and how we see it, prompting our subconscious to ominously fill in the shadows outside our field of vision. It is a pity the narrative is not as inspired. Shults also advances a conception of human nature that is more pessimistic than Hobbes, but it is almost knee-jerkingly consistent with prevailing media preconceptions. Let us all hope we have no occasion to test how fair and true to life that portrayal of humanity really is. Recommended solely for genre fans for its skillfully stage-managed home invasion scenes and the potent vibe of slowly mounting dread, It Comes at Night opens this Friday (6/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire and the Cinépolis Chelsea.

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