By Josh Williams Film has always had the ability to manipulate our emotions. Whether it be to make us feel love on some sort of level with romance films, make us contemplate our existence through drama films, whatever the situation may be, films force us to connect our own life experience with that of the characters. In some way or shape or form, if this film is executed correctly, we connect with whatever situation is occurring on screen and therefore allow the filmmakers to manipulate our emotions. One of these said emotions is fear, the ability to make us as a viewer literally shake in our own skin is a rare thing that filmmakers attempt to manipulate. As stated in Episode 41 of the podcast, some films that immediately come to mind are “The Shining” and “The Exorcist.” Everyone has their favorite but the best and most recent example of a film perfectly manipulating fear is in Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night.” Fear and paranoia are two elements that are front and center in Shults’ latest project, but how do we separate fear and paranoia from straight horror films? It definitely is an incredibly thin line but there is still something separating the two. There are certain films that only evoke these feelings of being nervous or petrified versus just being scared. Films like “The Conjuring,” or literally any horror film that is just straight jump scares do not necessarily shake us to our core but just give us a quick jump in that split second of a moment. Since its already difficult enough to create physical terror and paranoia in the moment, what is even more difficult is stretching that terror over an entire feature film. And with only his sophomore film, Trey Edward Shults is now on the level of legendary horror directors like Kubrick, Carpenter, and Friedkin. But what exactly does Shults do that feels so unique and profound that other recent horror directors seem to be lacking?
The first thing is only giving us one small piece of the pie. From the moment the film begins there is quite the ambiguity flowing its veins. We’re thrown into this terrifying world where we do not quite understand what is going on, and neither do our characters. The main family that the film revolves around does not necessarily have a grasp on the events occurring within their world, which begins the first step in us connecting with these characters. The characters are incredibly real and handle all of the situations with a sense of humanity. Each action taken doesn’t feel like it was written in by a screenwriter but that we’re actually watching humans react to a terrifying scenario. The small bit of information we are given is that there is some sickness spreading throughout the world and infecting humans. The first time we are faced with the sickness is through the grandfather of the family and when I say faced, I mean that literally. The film’s opening shot is of the grandfather staring into the lens absolutely petrified. We can tell he isn’t healthy and we witness him not only be killed but also burned and buried.
This entire opening sequence takes about five minutes and only a few words of dialogue are spoken. But so much information is delivered through this opening sequence. We receive a basic understanding of not only the world the characters are in, but also an understanding of Shults’ approach to the cinematic language. Before diving into the clear auteur that Shults is becoming we’ll discuss the world he creates. After we get an incredible up close and personal encounter with the sickness, we assume the rest of the film will be about this family trying to dodge said disease. However, Shults then quickly flips this expectation on its head. The only real encounter that we see of the disease is in this opening sequence and also through the son, Travis’ nightmares.
Throughout the entire film, there are several moments where we are taken into the head of Travis and we get to see these nightmares that he is having. We see the grandfather of the film in a terrifying new light, showing us just how awful this sickness can be. The nightmares progressively get more and more soul shaking. I won’t spoil what the nightmares mean to the overall film and its metaphors but they truly are the most terrifying parts of the film. Whenever the film fades to black and we shift into the nightmare realm, a rather specific suspense washes over us as a viewer. But other than Travis’ nightmares the film is more so about Travis and his family taking in another family into their home. Travis, his father Paul, and his mother Sarah live in a secluded house in the middle of the woods and keep strictly to themselves. Paul is incredibly paranoid about the outside world, so much so that there is only one way in and out of the house.
But one night when a man named Will breaks into their home, their peaceful tranquility becomes disturbed. The film no longer becomes about the disease and the ambiguity of the outside world but this family’s struggle to survive. Travis’ family refuses to trust Will at first but after some careful and violent interrogating, a friendship begins to form. Obviously, this friendship still has its precautions. As the film continues to unfold so do the true intentions of Will and his family. Will, his wife Kim and their son Andrew all are looking to save their own skin even if it is at the cost of Travis and his family.
Turning this from just a typical horror film and into something more artsy and unique, Shults creates something totally his own. But what exactly makes this a tour de force of Shults and his auteurist vision? Quite a few things come to mind, like the horrifying visuals and absolutely breathtaking visual style. But the thing that is the most effective in delivering the suspense, the literal physical terror that you feel and the nerve-wracking tension, is the editing. Now, this isn’t only how the film is cut together but also in Shults’ shot selection. There are quite a few shots that would seem out of place in a typical horror film but work perfectly into Shults petrifying formula. The most frequently used shots are straight on shots, facing the characters, and them looking right into the lens. This not only makes whatever scene that much more uncomfortable but also it forces us to explore a whole other level of humanity. We are literally right in the face of the discomfort and paranoia of the characters.
But the film is edited at a methodical pace. Instead of going for quick, jarring cuts a slower approach is taken. Despite the film only being an hour and thirty minutes in runtime, it feels almost twice that length. As the terror and suspense continue through the slow, smooth tracking shots, the edits come in slow pieces and at unnatural times. Versus cutting on an action or on another significant moment like filmmakers are taught, the edits take their time. They slowly drag you along, forcing you to live in certain shots and moments for a rather specific amount of time. It’s almost unnerving how long we are forced to look at certain shots. Creating the anxiety that the film emits through the smooth, slow Kubrick style tracking shots and through the slow, methodical editing, Shults has already mastered the horror genre with just his second film.
Fear and paranoia play a big part in the world of film and we all have our favorite films that evoke fear, but Trey Edward Shults has crafted something completely unique and heart wrenching with this film. With a slow and steady approach to the physical terror versus something fast and in your face. Versus taking a jump scare approach where the fear only lasts a fraction of a second, the anxiety, paranoia, and tensions last literally the entire hour and thirty minutes. “It Comes at Night” is petrifying, soul shaking and forces you to live your life constantly looking over your shoulder immediately after the film ends. With a perfect cast and perfect performances, a brilliant set up for an even more brilliant pay off, “It Comes at Night” is an instant horror classic that solidifies Trey Edward Shults as a modern horror auteur. “It Comes at Night” is out now in theaters. Be sure to let us know what your thoughts are in the comments below.
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