What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
“It is unconscious distrustfulness that corrodes the heart and destroys the heart’s insight, and prevents it from saluting goodness.” —E. M. Forster
Where’s the line between compassion and recklessness? When do caution and prudence give way to suspicion and paranoia? How do we identify the often-subtle shift from protector to oppressor? Though present circumstances might highlight the political nature of these questions, their implications are considerably more intimate in Trey Edward Shults’s fascinating new film, It Comes at Night. Shults previously trained a microscopic lens on the brittle nature of family relationships in his stunning debut, Krisha — a film that does for Thanksgiving roughly what Jaws did for the ocean. Shults doesn’t stray from this familial territory in his latest movie, but he does cast a wider net. In It Comes at Night, the family unit becomes a picture of society in microcosm, a timely reminder that, in the end, political questions are always personal questions.
For all its originality, the movie certainly doesn’t reinvent the genre wheel: A mysterious virus has dismantled civilization by reducing its victims to blood-spewing savages, their bodies striated with suppurating wounds. The story concerns a family of three who have shored up their resources against the ravages of the disease in their vast, boarded-up house. Here, Paul and Sarah eke out a meager existence with their teenage son, Travis. Outdoor excursions are limited and restricted to daylight hours. “We never go out at night,” as Paul curtly puts it. A red door is the home’s single point of entry. The world outside the house is ominous in the manner of abandoned playgrounds and amusement parks. The family dog barks into the maw of the surrounding woods, as though they harbor some nameless intruder that’s fast approaching.
If this sounds a bit like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the film’s opening scene swiftly dispels the notion; this is not a zombie movie in disguise. After a tender moment of parting between Sarah and her infected father, we watch Paul and Travis, attired in gasmasks, transport their ravening family member in a wheelbarrow to a freshly dug grave. Paul proceeds to shoot his father-in-law execution-style, dump the body into the pit, and promptly set it ablaze.It Comes at Night implores us to have the courage to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Remarkably, most of the film’s major preoccupations are encapsulated in that arresting little scene. First, there’s the terribly personal nature of all violence, the inescapable fact that harm inflicted on another human being is also harm inflicted on an entire family, and even a community. Damage done to one person is damage done to numerous unseen others, some of them not yet born. The recent spate of terror attacks around the globe serves as a poignant reminder of the communal nature of all violence.
No act of bloodshed in the film is devoid of this relational dynamic. Even the murder of two marauding strangers is met with shock and dismay, as the film’s protagonists hover over the bodies and speculate about the whereabouts of their remaining loved ones. This humane approach to brutality links It Comes at Night to a number of recent horror films that have seriously reinvigorated the genre, among them It Follows, The Witch, and Green Room.
Another theme on display in the opening scene concerns the inexorable nature of family relationships. As with Krisha, Shults is often at pains to remind us that we can’t choose our families. Like it or not, this unwieldy group of people is part of who you are. And yes, that includes your conspiracy theory-loving uncle who collects ammunition and canned goods while patiently awaiting the global power grid’s collapse. In this sense, family intrudes on our increasingly flexible 21st century conceptions of freedom and identity with rigid and timeless ideas like fate and destiny. Here we see that the ties of kinship involve bonds of love and mutual obligation that go well beyond personal preference to include duties that are as intimate as they are grave. There’s nothing malicious in the film’s opening execution: This is a severe mercy administered by a loving family member who recognizes that the roles could’ve easily been reversed.
Travis’s presence at this mercy killing is a window into the film’s sobering picture of growing up. The portrayal of adolescence in popular entertainment is often decidedly one-dimensional, functioning as little more than a convenient excuse for filmmakers to explore the dramatic possibilities of sexual awakening in all of its intractable glory. Though Shults doesn’t overlook his teenage character’s sexual dynamics, he does remind us that coming-of-age also involves the recognition of one’s mortality and a consequent loss of youthful idealism — a loss that’s exacerbated by a growing awareness of the infirmities and failures of adults, especially those within our families.
It helps that Travis isn’t a typical teenager. A reproduction of the right-hand panel of Heironymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych hangs on his bedroom wall. It’s the panel depicting hell’s lurid topography, of course; Bosch’s famous work has suffered the same one-track fate as Dante’s Divine Comedy. (Not that any of its paradisal aspects would fit into Travis’s grim landscape, though.) But Shults isn’t just winking at hipsters and Art History majors. The painting is an emblem of the film’s gothic visuals in a manner similar to Goya’s influence on Robert Eggers’s The Witch. Like Eggers, Shults speaks most clearly through his immaculate scenery.
Shults is a master at mining the tensions imposed by close quarters, and he wisely restricts most of the film’s action to the cloistered environs of the family home. Again, as with The Witch, It Comes at Night is a visual masterpiece of expert framing, abundant shadows, and deep colors that pulse aggressively. That crimson door is at the visual center of the movie, representing both the promise of protection as well as the threat of invasion. Shults has a habit of carefully circumscribing each scene’s lighting so that the frontiers of the film’s surrounding visual field are black. This technique adds an oppressive quality to each shot; something monstrous somewhere in the thicket of darkness seems to be constantly bearing down on the characters. The scenes in the house feel more fragile than claustrophobic because Shults’s visuals convey the sense that the outside darkness is pressing in so tightly that it’s only a matter of time before this feeble shelter collapses. You can almost hear the wood groaning.
But what exactly is it that comes out at night? What’s in those woods? What is the dog barking at? Why do Paul and his family never go out at night?
Only one intruder rattles the sacred red door, and it isn’t a monster of any kind. It’s a man who calls himself Will, and he’s seeking shelter and protection for his own wife and son, a prospect that’s received with deep trepidation by Paul. Is Will sick? Are any of his family members exhibiting symptoms? Is there even a family in the first place, or is this just some elaborate scheme? Trust is a luxury largely absent from the world these two inhabit, and Will receives Paul’s ruthless interrogations with seasoned equanimity. Nevertheless, Paul concedes, it seems to make a lot of sense for these two families to pool their resources, and band together for the sake of survival. They decide to risk collaboration. It’s a decision that proves to be the undoing of everyone involved.
Shults has said, “Thinking about families, and how they’re like their own tribes, and how people put their tribe first. I think there’s a lot in how we live, where family always comes first. And if we think that way in any circumstance, we’re just going to end up destroying ourselves. It’s inevitable. These cycles of violence keep happening, and they’re like warning signs that we ignore.” For many of us, this observation will call to mind the growing national anxieties regarding outsiders. From the refugee crisis to the current administration’s travel ban to the continuing legacy of police brutality against minorities, mutual suspicion is fast becoming a cultural epidemic in the United States. It Comes at Night may be a personal film, but it also plays out as a national nightmare about the dangers of unchecked paranoia.
It Comes at Night would be an easier film if it had a traditional villain. Of course, the characters are far from perfect. Paul’s zeal for the safety of his family clouds his moral judgment while Travis has a bad habit of indulging his voyeuristic urges. Despite Paul’s relentless scrutiny, Will’s story never quite holds up; he is hiding something. But it’s also true that not a single character acts out of malice. Though it’s not front and center in the story, the film’s exotic virus is a constant threat, and the risk of infection is all too real. It Comes at Night would also be an easier film if the suspicion and paranoia exhibited by its characters weren’t so understandable. As it stands, we have a story where everyone is right to be afraid of strangers, and, most difficult of all, everyone tries to do what’s right. Calamity befalls them all the same. This is a movie without any escape clauses.
Some critics argue that the film represents little more than an elegant cry of despair. Shults may be a great stylist, but he’s also an inveterate cynic, and the last thing we need right now is another gloomy addition to our popular entertainment. While it’s true the film is bleak, I think Shults is actually offering a difficult answer to the questions he raises: In times of heightened danger and hostility, of growing fear and paranoia, the most dangerous response may just be playing it safe. It Comes at Night implores us to have the courage to give each other the benefit of the doubt. That’s a risky message indeed, but it’s certainly not a cynical one.
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