Last weekend I saw It Comes at Night, the sophomore effort from writer-director Trey Edward Shults. His debut film, Krisha, was one of my favorites of last year, with an energetic style and a merciless yet empathetic approach to storytelling. Alas, It Comes at Night was disappointing, a half-cocked gambit to avoid the sophomore slump that feels more like the idea of a horror movie than the real thing. Despite some impressive, practically lit cinematography and an engrossing atmosphere, the film sadly feels like a rough draft.
Two other films kept popping into my mind as I watched Night. The first was The Witch, Robert Eggers’ own exciting debut from last year. The films share two key things: their creeping, dour visuals and mood, and their production company, A24. Indeed, the two films are so stylistically similar (and even have a certain on-screen goat in common), that I began to wonder if A24 were developing their own house horror style. An indie cinematic horror-verse, if you will. But the similarities end there. Eggers’ film is much more accomplished and confident, gleefully knowing exactly what it is and what rooms within the horror playhouse it wants to explore. Shults knows little more than that he wants to hang out in that playhouse, but isn’t sure what to do with it all. He bounces from room to room, recklessly taking a souvenir from each one, and he inadvertently makes a mess of the place.
But Night was even more reminiscent of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s hit horror-comedy from earlier this year. I wondered why my mind kept pairing the two, because they seemingly share little besides being cerebral, psychological horror/thrillers released in 2017. But the answer slowly revealed itself: neither Get Out nor It Comes at Night takes full advantage of the horror genre. In other words, if cinema is a dream, than horror films are nightmares, and both films are surprisingly light on nightmare fuel.
OK, two things to clear up first.
1) I enjoyed Get Out. It’s clearly the better of the two movies. But it has issues that I’ll get into here, and that, as far as I know, haven’t been discussed much.
2) I’m not saying that either of these films isn’t scary. They are, but not in ways that demonstrate the full potency of their ideas. And no, that doesn’t mean more jump scares (they each have enough, and it’s a cheap gimmick anyway). It’s not that the films fail because they don’t fulfill certain genre conventions and fit the mold. To the contrary, I love films that break down and expand whatever genre they operate in. But both of these films feel hemmed in by those conventions. And while seeing an artist place their personal stamp on a genre is usually exciting, Get Out and Night are held back by the limitations and tics of their creators.
Shults’ Achilles Heel is what amounts to not enough familiarity with the horror genre and not enough experience as a filmmaker. While one can feel Shults’ enthusiasm and directorial verve, he lacks a point of view, a center that will help his ideas coalesce and take shape. There are many ideas in It Comes At Night, but there isn’t one that comes forth as central, that provides a through line to keep the film from going off the rails. Several sub plots bubble up, only to dissipate ten minutes later. Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), the closest the film has to a lead character, has several dreams and visions that illustrate his anxiety about contracting the virus that has decimated the world’s population and killed his grandfather. Nothing much comes of it except (spoiler) Travis actually does get sick by films’ end. This thread isn’t developed enough to have any dramatic or thematic potency, and ultimately just feels like a random narrative event, lacking greater context and meaning.
Likewise, midway through the film, Travis develops an adolescent crush on Kim (Riley Keough), a guest in the house that Travis lives in with his parents (Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo). Except Kim is married to Will (Christopher Abbot) and has a son with him. This initially appears to be a set-up for conflict between Travis, Will, and the rest of the two families, but again, nothing comes of Travis’s hormonally charged, curious glances at Kim. They just happen and have no bearing on the rest of the story.
These two potential subplots, when considered alongside the other narrative threads, suggest the film’s preoccupation with humanity’s tribal, primitive instincts; that no matter how developed we think we are, we’re really just animals trying to survive. It’s not a misguided or uninteresting notion to explore (if you ask me, there’s even a bit of truth to it), but the poor handling of these themes and the film’s failure to explore them fully make the idea feel both cliché and dubious. It reeks of macho, Kubrick-lite pessimism. Night’s doesn’t know the horror genre and lacks a perspective, and that leaves the film too loose and incoherent.
But conversely, Get Out’s overfamiliarity with horror, and the relentless illustration of its point of view, suffocate the film. Writer/Director Jordan Peele knows exactly what he wants to say and says it with an iron-grip stranglehold on his film’s aesthetics and messaging. He also knows every trick and trope of horror cinema and pays dutiful homage to his influences. But these homages overpower Peele’s vision and dilute his imagination and unique perspective.
Shults’ Dionysian instinct needs something to give his vision focus. Peele, with his Apollonian didacticism, needs to let his vision breathe so it can flourish into a truly thought-provoking work of art, rather than a cinematic think piece. Everything in Get Out exists only in service of its greater sociological critique. No element is out of place; no detail or behavioral tic is too small for Peele (there’s Kubrick again). It’s clear – and admittedly admirable – that Peele carefully considered everything. But a film that’s too thought out, and which bypasses emotional truths in favor of intellectual ones, becomes stuffy.
This problem is exacerbated when considering two key questions: “What is this film trying to say?” and “Who is it trying to say it to?” Get Out’s audience seems to be two fold: one is people of color, particularly black folks. The other is white folks, particularly white liberals. In the case of the former, the film seeks to serve as a kind of catharsis, an entertaining release of some of the pent up racial anxiety and anger that has plagued the country, particularly in recent years. I won’t speak for African-American audience members, but based on the film’s response, it seems to have been at least somewhat successful on that front.
I’m more concerned with the other portion of the film’s audience. Get Out clearly wants to throw white liberal’s latent racism back in their faces, portraying them as villains who jump through a dizzying amount of psychological hoops to justify their continued exploitation of black bodies, while still convincing themselves of their “progressive” credentials (“I would’ve voted for a Obama for a third term”). But the film doesn’t have the confrontational tone necessary for whites to truly see themselves in the antagonists, and to subsequently reckon with that. The central twist is too ludicrous to be taken as anything other than ludicrous. Not that it’s unbelievable in theory – as a premise or idea – merely that the film’s execution robs it of its potential gravity.
This issue stems from Peele’s background. He’s a comedian by nature, and while I genuinely admire his desire to switch gears and expand his palette, it’s clear his comic instincts impede on his desire to make socially conscious horror. On the sketch series Key & Peele, Peele, his partner Keegan-Michael Key, and their team often parodied familiar genres, exaggerating their tropes and faithfully imitating their conventions and styles for the purpose of satire. Get Out can feel like an extended version of those sketches. There’s more an earnest engagement with the relevant genre here compared to the series, but Peele can’t escape the ironic detachment that provided a comfortable sense of remove from the sketches he created in his previous work, the winks and nudges that keep the audience focused on the larger, capitol-P “Point” of the sketch, and distracts from the imitative artistry and the inability to get under your skin. It wants to make you feel smarter and “woke” without actually making you so.
In fact, the impression I get from most responses to Get Out, based on both wider cultural conversation online and the mood in the theater both times I saw it, was not that of discomfort or provoked thought, but giddy enjoyment. As odd as it sounds, Get Out may be too much fun for its own good, and not nearly hard-edged enough to provide the trenchant social commentary it aims for. What should be an unnerving look at racial politics in America turns out be more of an entertaining schlock fest, complete with B-movie ridiculousness, as many laughs as there are scares, and a desire to ingratiate itself with the viewer. Peele probably didn’t want to make too difficult or off-putting a film and risk alienating his audience. But he did so at the expense of truly reaching them, summed up best by this tweet:
I think the above exchange unintentionally demonstrates Peele’s own unconscious acknowledgment that his film failed to change hearts and minds. Bear with me for a moment.
If the movie’s point is to confront whites with their latent racism and how they deny their own complicity in systems of institutionalized exploitation, wouldn’t the parent’s admiration of the film demonstrate how ineffective it is? Shouldn’t they be horrified and disgusted by what they subconsciously comprehended about themselves, even if they’re in denial about it? Maybe that’s a stretch, but these are questions worth asking, especially in these politically fraught times. Do we want art that challenges us, that makes us uncomfortable and forces us to question ourselves, and is actually effective in getting the audience to see the world from new perspectives? Or do we want art that condescends, that panders to our pre-established political and moral views, and pats us on the back as we let ourselves off the hook for the part we play in perpetuating injustice?
OK, back to It Comes At Night. I think the problem with each film is that neither truly horrifies. Don’t get me wrong; they alternately provoke excitement, dread, laughter (both genuine and ironically uncomfortable), and fright. But never true, unsettling terror, profound fear that bubbles up from corners of the audience’s mind they didn’t even know existed. There are many moments to enjoy in both films, but none that unnerve. There’s no shocking recognition of ourselves in the characters and situations of both films, only distant fascination and enjoyment of the events depicted. And that’s a missed opportunity, since that recognition, shock, and subsequent discomfort is something that horror is uniquely capable of.
Neither of these films get inside your head the way a great horror film – or just a great film, period – does. With Night, it’s due to a lack of ideas and perspective, and a preoccupation with its own grimness. With Get Out, it’s because the film is too eager to please and has a myopic obsession with making sure you “get it.” And both films suffer from a crippling reverence for horror films of the past. Seriously, directors need to expand their point of reference for horror imagery and sound design beyond just The Shining.
Which brings me back to The Witch. In it, I see opportunities taken that the two other films leave lying on the table. It’s concerned with political and moral issues that give its story meaning and weight, but The Witch doesn’t beat you over the head with them. Eggers leaves his thematic conclusions ambiguous so the viewer is forced to sit up and actually engage with his film, not passively take it in. And the imagination and skillful filmmaking on display are refreshing. Eggers conjures unique imagery and sounds that owe a clear debt to his influences, but are never overtaken by them, made all the more profound by the fact that they disgust, confuse, amaze and yes, horrify. It’s not perfect. Its gender politics are imperfect and it shows more of Egger’s potential than his skill. But The Witch knows what it’s doing and doesn’t hold itself back from being an impassioned, complicated work of art.
It Comes at Night and Get Out are not bad films. Like I said, I enjoyed Get Out and my harshness towards Night has more to do with the disappointment of Shults not living up to his potential. I’m a fan of Peele and Shults’ previous work and I want them to succeed as storytellers. But their most recent works demonstrate serious issues that will harm their future efforts if they go unaddressed. They’re skilled directors who clearly love the horror genre and understand its value within the art of filmmaking, and I feel guilty for coming down on them harshly. But they failed to make films that truly tap into our cultural and personal nightmares, which is what separates a great horror film from a good or mediocre one. And the prospect that they continue to make films that don’t take full advantage of their talents and unique perspective? That’s a thought more terrifying than anything you’ll find in either Get Out or It Comes at Night.