film review: it comes at night
Written by Andrew Busch
The dark theatre was flooded with a dim light as the credits started to roll on screen. Everyone was silent for a few moments until a flustered movie-goer uttered, “That was the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” The film we had just finished was It Comes at Night, the newest movie on A24’s glowing roster. But does this film deserve a place next to the company’s other stunning projects like Moonlight, Swiss Army Man, or The Witch?
I understand how this movie is not for everyone. The genre of zombie flicks and Walking Dead spin-off shows are full of blood, gore and explosions. People have become accustomed to seeing films like World War Z and 28 Days Later, where zombie killing is as plentiful as the plot is thin. However, the movie’s small production company, Animal Kingdom, has done a huge favor for a genre that is as tired and banal as the taste of cardboard.
What immediately sets this movie apart from other entries in the zombie genre is its small scale. It Comes at Night is not about massive sets or huge action sequences. Instead, it is a piece focused on building tension and drama around a small cast of characters. This strategy is much more effective at creating an environment of genuine horror than jump scares or hoards of the undead because the plot feels realistic. There are no giant skyscrapers made of ant-like zombies or scenes where helicopters are used to decapitate dozens of creatures. The thrill of this film is completely maintained by its flawed characters and the difficult decisions that they grapple with. Terror remains surprisingly human for a zombie film and its handful of action sequences are as gritty as they are unsettling.
The technical elements and cinematography of It Comes at Night are also something that sets it apart from major zombie blockbusters. Animal Kingdom manages to disguise the suspenseful and terrifying as something that looks gorgeous. For example, the way that light is implemented throughout is masterful and adds a nice visual flair. During the hours of night, characters use flashlights on their weapons and lamps, which create some striking contrasts while adding to the moments of isolation and suspense. The technical elements also shine as fade-ins look like something out of Kubrick’s beloved films and jump cuts are implemented to muddle to boundary between reality and imagination. It Comes at Night takes advantage of the cinematic details that are pushed aside by larger blockbusters and in-turn attempts to reclaim the genre of zombie films for the arts.
But is this a “zombie movie?” For a title that seems to reference monsters that hide in the shadows, It Comes at Night is almost all feature and no creature. In fact, without Trevor (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his disturbing dream sequences there would be even less zombie in this film. This could be a strength or major weakness of the film depending on how you spin it. On one hand, the absence of creatures detracts from what is probably the most essential piece of the genre. Alternatively, by using creatures as auxiliary pieces the film amplifies the drama between its characters and emphasizes the danger that humans pose to one another.
Yet, the most glaring problem with It Comes at Night isn’t its missing creature or abrupt ending. The film’s weakest link is its pacing. Enough action happens to keep you satisfied throughout the rate at which the plot develops is slow. I understand that waiting is a crucial element as a family hunkers down in their home during a strange epidemic, and that building suspense is one of the film’s main goals. However, you might find this as a bit of a challenge if you are expecting this movie to be a thrill-ride. It Comes at Night is smart as it plods through its story and while it’s wild it is definitely not a quick ride.
I still have trouble understanding some of the critiques I heard from the audience as the credits rolled in the theatre. This film is not a conventional zombie flick and provides a fresh take on a genre that is oversaturated with awful entries. It Comes at Night is a human drama with wonderful cinematography and a few moments of gritty action that make it worth your time. Even if you don’t consider it to be a “zombie movie” this film is proof that it is possible to take the beaten path and still create something original.
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