Trey Edwards Shults’ sophomore effort is a moody, slow-burn film in which mankind is the monster. Audiences expecting a hideous creature lurking in the woods will be disappointed, but those who are prepared for a minimalist horror tale that preys upon imagined fears rather than real ones will be rewarded with a penetrating psychological insight into the assumptions we make and the emotions that motivate us. From the opening scene, paranoia and dread are lodged into our minds as protagonists Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), are euthanizing the grandfather, who has presumably been riddled with disease. During the mercy killing, the son, Travis, seems to be the only one capable of expressing empathy, as he watches with mouth agape at the cold dispatching of his relative. As we see much through the adolescent’s perspective, the witnessing of his grandfather’s death would seem to be a rite-of-passage in a coming-of-age narrative of sorts were it not for the fact that his father, Paul, emasculates him frequently throughout the rest of the unfolding drama. When the terror escalates as an intruder arrives and attempts to break in the house, Paul will take on the risk alone while he demands that his family remain in hiding. The subtle brilliance of Shults’ story though is that the focus is not on the threat per say but how the cast reacts to the threat. It is near impossible to spoil this movie as the “It” of the title remains amorphous and undefined. After ruminating over the implications of the film though, I think the theme Schults is aiming for is man’s inherent fear of the unknown, which finds its fullest expression in our constant attempts to avoid and avert death.
The director has been open in various interviews in saying that what prompted him to write this script was the grieving process he went through over the death of his estranged and alcoholic father. Grief and fear are at times indistinguishable. As C.S. Lewis once said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Whether actual grief or anticipated grief, the patriarch shelters his family from the perceived menace by operating out of paranoia and self-preservation. As it turns out, the intruder, Will (Christopher Abbott), is a father himself who was entering the house because he thought it was abandoned and was looking for water and supplies for his own family. Following tense discussions in which Sarah pleads with Paul to consider providing shelter to Will and his alleged family (a scene in which the characters are filmed from their backs), Travis’s father finally agrees to go determine if the intruder’s narrative is indeed a truthful one but only when Sarah’s appeal turns rational (“They already know where we live”). “Don’t get emotional” had been Paul’s previous chiding. Apparently, empathy is dispensable in the post-apocalyptic landscape.
Before being ferried back to his family’s house, Will attempts to negotiate his release by suggesting a false narrative to Paul and saying to him, “You are a good man. You are just trying to protect your family.” As an audience, we are not convinced though and suspect this claim as a desperate attempt at self-preservation on Will’s part. A recurring theme in the film is the expediency of truth for the sake of self-preservation and we see it emerging here. Eventually, Paul will unbind Will and put him in the back of his truck. While doing so, Paul asks, “Are we good?” Such a faux confession is all too familiar because how often have we been guilty of trying to make a hasty reconciliation only for the benefit of appeasing our own consciences? Further, this kind of flimsy apology comes from a character who had just beaten and humiliated his captive by tying him to a tree. But the question that Paul asks Will is also a more ethical one that the movie explores, “Is mankind good?”
Throughout the film, the protagonists wear masks, which on a literal level is meant to protect them from the nebulous airborne contagion but on a figurative one enables them to commit dehumanizing acts of violence. Moreover, the masks inhibit the characters from ever having to actually look at the external world, the film’s location of death, with their own eyes. Recently, I attended my grandmother’s funeral and the visitation was an open casket viewing. What was evident to me was the way (with the exception of my closest family members) most guests would not even stand in the same room as the casket. The two rooms were connected and, even though the coffin was on the far wall of the opposite room, most people would not even get near the invisible threshold between the two spaces. It was so noticeable to me that I even asked my dad if it was permissible for me to go ahead and visit my grandmother’s body or if I would be violating some protocol that I was unfamiliar with. As humans, we are that fearful of death that we don’t want to even be in the same room as it. Like the characters in It Comes at Night, death seems contagious to us, like a disease.
Reflecting further on the experience, I realized how odd and anomalous open casket viewings as a ritual are in today’s society. We euphemize death so we do not have to deal with it. In the days leading up to my grandmother’s funeral, I found myself resorting to familiar circumlocutions as I tried to explain to my children that their great grandmother had “passed away.” The characters of It Comes at Night are microcosmic of all of humanity in that we have an obsessive fear of the unknown, which is epitomized in death. This pathological fear often leads us to turn inward and engage in tribalism and self-exile. Upon returning after a few days with Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), Paul’s family and the three newcomers share a short-lived time of idyllic trust and community. At the conclusion of the montage though, Paul convenes the new arrivals around the table and briefs them of the strict rules that must be adhered to in order to ensure everyone’s safety. They do not go out at night. Windows are barricaded. There is one red door that leads in and out that remains locked. When they do go out during the day, they travel in pairs, which is ironic given the theme of mistrust that permeates the film.
The lack of trust and the presence of death are related and have its precedent in the Fall. Death is the ultimate estrangement, not just from life and from God, but from others. Such an estrangement leads man into self-protective behaviors that are actually self-sabotaging. Watching It Comes at Night, my mind was brought back to how in Genesis 3:7 the first reaction of Adam and Eve after they sin is self-preservation, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” In similar fashion, Paul sequesters his family from the outside world by keeping them secluded in his house, which is his own form of fig leaves. While I want to be careful about speculating and Genesis 3:8 does not make this explicit, the implication of the text is that not only do Adam and Eve respond to the first sin and the penalty of death by hiding from God, but also by hiding from each other. If they are not physically hiding from each other, the text certainly makes clear that they have abandoned all allegiances toward one another by engaging in blameshifting: Adam betrays Eve and Eve claims to be the victim of the serpent. In similar fashion, alliances are formed and quickly broken in It Comes at Night. For example, Kim and Travis seem to be forming a bond over the fact that neither of them can sleep and Will even acts like a surrogate father to Travis, taking on a role of kindness that his actual father eschews. However, the fickleness of human commitments and the frailty of our bonds are on display as Will and Kim both turn on Travis the night the red door is left open and either Paul’s son or their son is the culprit.
Interspersed throughout the story are hallucinogenic dream sequences where Travis is vomiting blood. Paradoxically, blood can be both a symbol for life and death. In these purgative scenes, it is as if Travis recognizes his own need for atonement and cure for the pathogen that is death. Related to the dream sequences is the repetition of the imagery of the red door. The door is a symbol for death and the redness of it also signifies mortality. However, on further examination, the audience realizes that the only life that actually matters is the one outside the claustrophobic setting of the house, the prison in which only paranoia grows. Thus, there is a suggestion here of another paradox: that in order to escape death we must go through it.
Without spoiling the details of the rest of the plot, I will only indicate that there is further fragmentation and divisiveness that occurs as the result of one of the family members appearing sick. The resulting mistrust and lack of empathy demonstrated chiefly by Paul illustrates the futility man has in preventing the coming of death. As the English poet would say, “Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Several days ago, I spoke with my mom concerning death and its imminence for all of us. We observed that even though my grandmother was 87, she was in relative good health before her sudden stroke. My grandmother was a fervent believer, but she also had her phobias, many of which I and a lot of us can relate to. She feared diseases, airplanes, car crashes, and tornadoes. One particular quirk of hers was to place objects in her house on paper towels to prevent the spread of germs. However, as a kind of happy, divine irony, in her dying moments, I’m told she was prepared and at peace before meeting her savior. Because Jesus went through the red door for us, we don’t have to fear death and engage in self-protection. Our sewing of fig leaves, whether it is in the form of hiding in barricaded houses or placing objects on paper towels, is unnecessary since we have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and death is dead.
In spite of the fact that my dad would not want to receive any attention for a particular gift he gave me, I must share a story that I believe is a beautiful picture of the gospel. A couple of days before my grandmother’s funeral, he bought me a brand new suit and had me fitted for it. Lavishing upon me further, he purchased for me two pairs of shoes. In order for me to be well-dressed for the funeral, he clothed me in the finest attire. I had protested with my dad some beforehand saying that I had a suit I could wear. And yet, he insisted on a new one. I attended the ceremony of death in a brand new garb. After our first parents attempted in vain to cover themselves, God in his grace dresses their naked selves. Genesis 3:21 says, “And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” Furthermore, the believer faces death robed in the righteousness of Christ for which his old suit cannot compare. And though we still experience physical death until the Lord returns, the believer’s theme is not, “It comes at night” but rather “He comes at night.”
For he will come at night, at the twilight of the present evil age, for all those who will put down their fig leaves and receive the clothes that he provides.