“When we’re inside the house, the door to the back room stays, uh, closed and locked–the one that you came through–and the door leading to the back room, uh, also stays closed and locked. All the time. The red door.”
The answer to your question is death.
It Comes at Night is horror film as short story. It’s no small feat to write a script that can be filmed on a minimal budget, with a small cast, in a single location, but out of that challenge can come masterpieces of claustrophobia and tension. This film isn’t quite that, but its low stakes, quiet rhythms, and overall sense of restraint serve it very well. It’s about what it’s about, without any extraneous information or an excess of stylistic embellishment. It’s just a movie about two families in the woods, and what happens to them there.
The movie opens with what is essentially a self-contained short film. A man, a woman, and a boy take an old, sick man out into the woods beyond their house in a wheelbarrow. The old man doesn’t speak. The others wear gloves and gas masks. We gather that the sick man is the woman’s father and the boy’s grandfather. They lay him down by an open grave. The boy says goodbye. With as much kindness as is possible, the man shoots his father-in-law in the head. Then they burn the body. As funerals go, it’s a shitty ritual. But then, this is a shitty world.
This is a slow and mostly quiet movie. It could easily be a play, particularly given the strong, naturalistic performances from the whole cast, but also because this is entirely about a human drama. No monsters show up from the deeper woods. Nobody leaves the forest for the city. We gather in dribs and drabs that there has been a catastrophic, possibly civilization-ending plague–a horrifyingly contagious disease whose symptoms emerge overnight. Paul (Joel Edgerton) has built a life for his family in their house in the woods around avoiding the contagion at all costs. They don’t interact with anyone outside the family. They don’t go out at night, and when they go out during the day, they never do so alone. It is a lonely life, with little hope or joy to it, but they are surviving.
Change comes in the form of Will (Christopher Abbott), a man who breaks into their home looking for supplies. He claims he thought it was empty. Paul, who confronts Will with a gun and ties him to a tree overnight, has some trust issues. Ultimately Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) come to live in Paul’s home, sharing the house and its water supply in exchange for sharing their own livestock. Paul lays down the rules for them, about the doors, the division of household chores, meal rationing, etc., and insists on controlling all the guns, in a scene that neatly encapsulates the ambiguity of his character. Is he a little too protective, a little too controlling, a little too suspicious? Or is this behavior acceptable given the circumstances?
What follow is the most pleasant, hopeful, and unambiguously joyful section of the movie, in which the two families’ lives begin to integrate in ways both surprising and rewarding. Will teaches young Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) how to split wood. Paul’s wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), shows Kim their water purification system. They care for the animals, go on walks, share meals, play Chinese checkers. A welcome intimacy builds. While most of the film is dominated by shots of characters isolated in the frame, separated by focus, or with only one source of light throwing harsh shadows on the wall, here we have balanced shots of two or more people, working together, sharing the space, well-lit. This montage is the centerpiece of the film, luminous and warm.
And yet we know it also can’t be trusted. After all, this is a horror film. Something must break this peace. Maybe Travis’ eerie nightmares, or his budding sexuality, inflamed by close proximity to the attractive Kim, will be the thing that disrupts this little Eden. Maybe whoever shot at Will and Paul in the woods earlier will return with ill intent. And then of course there’s always the plague. Nothing lasts. Especially happiness.
As it turns out, what breaks it is the dog, Stanley. One day the dog just runs off into the woods, barking after something or other. Travis runs after him, scaring his father, and later reports hearing something up in the trees ahead. Stanley simply vanishes, and the men are left peering into the forest…
…but there doesn’t seem to be anything there. Again, the film makes a virtue of its poverty; that shot of the empty woods, and our own paranoia, is scarier than any monster could have been.
That night, Travis finds little Andrew asleep on the floor in Travis’ grandfather’s room. He takes the child’s hand and walks him back to his parents’ room. The boy climbs into bed with them and is embraced by his mother, Kim, in another moment of powerful intimacy:
In retrospect this is horrifying, because we know that Andrew is already infected–that Stanley came back sick and Andrew opened the red door and was contaminated. When Travis holds Andrew’s hand, he signs his own death warrant. When Andrew snuggles into bed with his parents, he dooms them all. It Comes at Night is, at heart, the story of how emotional closeness is deadly, how intimacy is poisoned, how happiness is inevitably undone by mortality. The people you decide to let into your heart, into your home, into your bed, these people will die and their dying will kill you, or you will die and kill them.
In that light, Paul’s response does seem justified. When Travis tries to see his dog, Paul refuses to let him. “Do you want me to be the bad guy? I will be the bad guy. You’re not going in the room! Alright? He is fucking sick! … I am very sorry, Travis. Go, please? Go.” When he ties Will to a tree, when he lays down the rules, when he maintains his suspicions and his strict safety protocols even when someone else might relax, Paul is just trying to ensure his family’s survival. His solution to the night’s events is to separate the families into their respective rooms and wait… wait to see if it comes in the night. The signs of disease.
From here the rest of the story is sickeningly inevitable. Will and Kim discover Andrew’s infection, and try to leave, rather than be burned and buried next to Travis’ grandfather and dog. Paul and Sarah decide that they can’t allow the other family to go. Violence ensues, as it must. And in the end it’s all for naught. The next morning Travis bears visible signs of the disease, and as he dreams of walking through the red door and into the darkness beyond it, his parents face the prospect of digging one more shallow grave.
Despite the somewhat lurid title, It Comes at Night is the antidote to escapism apocalypses. There are no righteous heroic quests for the cure. No arsenals. No hordes of zombies to offer guilt-free head shot buffets. In films and shows like The Walking Dead, having a justification for making the “hard choice” to kill or abandon another person in a limited resource, dog-eat-dog world is a kind of power fantasy. But nobody ever fantasizes about burying their own son. The film takes us by the hand and walks us slowly from loss to loss to loss, its grip inescapable. This is what happens when you risk closeness with another human being. The price of those few moments of happiness is everything you have. And that bill must be paid. No matter how tightly you lock the red door, it will always open again. Until you, too, walk through.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 5: Five’ll Get You Dead, because the house always wins in the end. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.