REVIEW: It Comes at Night

11 06 2017

In his stunning debut feature, “Krisha,” writer/director Trey Edward Shults wowed right out of the gate by showcasing an impressive mastery of emotional ranges in the service of depicting the turbulent mental state of the eponymous character. His follow-up, “It Comes at Night,” takes a more restrained approach. Shults sticks mostly to the tense dread of the taut thriller with the occasional hallucinatory jolt of horror.

It’s hard to deny the impressive grasp of film technique Shults wields. Yet it’s also easy to wish he had a greater narrative, world or characters in which to invest the techniques.

“It Comes at Night” operates from a more contemporary update of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous maxim: the apocalypse is other people. In an abandoned wooden shack, well-armed patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton) defends his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from a never identified force that seems to turn humans into zombies. All that separates them from the outside world is a single, padlocked blood red door. That’s not the point, nor does that seem to be the “it” to which the title refers.

More than anything, “it” seems to be the fear of others – specifically, the young couple Will and Kim (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) with a small child who stumble upon their house by chance. They seek food and shelter, which Paul reluctantly and provisionally agrees to provide. Suspicion under these circumstances is natural, of course, but the host family – Paul especially – treats their every move with skepticism.

Perhaps these attitudes would make more sense if the characters were better defined –  not necessarily with flashbacks, but at least with hints of the past traumas that formed them – or the world were more fully fleshed out. What, for example, would lead Paul to shoot a man by the side of the road at will without stopping to gather any information from him? Shults opts for omnipresent ambiguity, which leaves us no foothold but the film’s ideology.

That worldview is a brutally nihilistic one, a reduction of all conflict in life to us vs. them. It’s total warfare in “It Comes at Night,” where personal survival means the enemy must face annihilation. I am open to considering viewpoints different from my own, yet the degree to which Shults condones these choices – and, dare I even say, exonerates them in the chilling final shot – left me feeling quite uneasy. Shults’ vague sketches of everything within the film make his cynicism feel unearned. This might be the best Steve Bannon production he didn’t finance. C+

REVIEW: Krisha

25 03 2016

KrishaAs much as I would like to say that I watch all films as they are meant to be seen, in a theatrical venue with an audience, that is not always the case. I saw upwards of 200 new releases in 2015 alone, which means that not all of them got such a favorable viewing experience. Some are squeezed in across several days; others, endured at the end of a five-film day at a festival.

I gave Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” perhaps the ultimate short shrift: an iPad viewing on a Monday night (Tuesday morning) at 12 A.M. by necessity before a digital screener link expired. I wanted to go to sleep after a long weekend but needed to watch the film, so I curled up in bed with my iPad and hit play. Yet, oddly enough, this quasi-dreamlike state proved quite the perfect state in which to experience this surreal yet all too real drama.

The film, just 80 minutes in duration, follows the struggles of the hot mess Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) as she fumbles her way through a Thanksgiving at the home of some estranged relatives – including her son. What unfolds is far from the standard kitchen-sink family melodrama. “Krisha” goes back and forth between two opposite sensations. Shults can make the viewer feel like an active presence in the room, observing the proceedings and recognizing their painful dialogues as ripped from real life. But he can also provide the perspective of an outsider watching Krisha’s meltdown through a funhouse mirror.

The constantly shifting pendulum induces slight whiplash, though it also brings about a masterful disorientation. Using the same technology most filmmakers employ to capture the world exactly as it is, Shults produces a hallucinatory and fantastical effect that frequently eludes creators working with eight-figure effects budgets. He turns the limitations of his ultra low-budget indie into the very essence of its strength, either by creatively maximizing his minimal resources or finding ingenious workarounds.

And I fought off my tiredness to marvel at the wonder that is “Krisha,” I found myself frequently wondering whether I had just watched something in Shults’ film or just dreamed it up in my sleep. I often rewound the film by a few minutes to make sure. Most times, the crazier, riskier and downright unbelievable things were on the screen – not in my head. B+3stars