The Director of 'It Comes at Night' Addresses the Cryptic Ending
Hopelessness. Peril. Paranoia. Fear. Bloodlust.
It Comes at Night, director Trey Edward Shults's follow-up to his anxiety-inducing masterpiece Krisha, is a post-apocalyptic nightmare-and-a-half where the horrors of humanity, the strain of chaotic emotions pent up in the name of survival, bleed out through wary eyes and weathered hands. The movie's setup is blockbuster-sized: after deadly virus reverts mankind to the days of the American Frontier, every sole survivor fights to protect their families and themselves. But is the contagion real? And is there any way to stop it? After watching his father-in-law decay away, Paul (Joel Edgerton) will stop at nothing to protect his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), even if it means turning his back on those in need.
Which he will, after a marathon run of unnerving encounters. The scares in It Comes at Night take every form: the lantern-lit hallways of Paul's padlocked shack breed shadows and whatever could lurk in them; the cabin's red door, a partition between life and death, is perpetually captured in camera moves that build suspense with every closing inch; the woodlands surrounding the family are sprawling yet suffocating -- behind any tree there could be a gunman or a mutated beast or a whiff of toxin ready to slip through a punctured gas mask. Then there are Travis's visions, where reality and fantasy meet in literal widescreen, then congeal into coughed up bile. It's disorienting, sick, and eternal.
There was really no hope for Will (Christopher Abbott) and his family, who show up in dire need of assistance and wind up dead before the closing credits. Regardless of the shared meals, the afternoons spent chopping wood, the whiskey-laced nights telling stories around a flickering light, the possibility of Will's son absorbing the virus, and the potential for him to infect everyone else in the house, was enough to send Paul off the deep end. Sarah pulls the trigger on Will, but the patriarch goes ballistic, gunning down Will's wife and child. Then we realize it's all pointless: Travis is sick, too. The final shot shows Paul and Sara succumbing to the illness. Death was fate.
What have we actually witnessed in It Comes at Night? There are no chainsaw-wielding madmen or slobbering zombie ghouls or even an explanation for how the world became palpably fucked up. A typical horror movie may point to a Patient Zero or tease a cure for audiences to cling to after such harrowing events. That's not It Comes at Night, which scatters traces of mythology across the nihilistic vision of a father's duty. You can walk away from the movie with burning questions: was Travis secretly sick the entire time, his dreams a symptom of the virus? Who opened the door and killed the family dog when Travis stumbled on to Will's son? Why did the teenager spend his waking hours drawing pictures of Slender-Man-like figures?
"A lot of questions are left unanswered," Shults tells me a few days, and a few aggressive showers, after I've seen the movie. "That is intentional. I will say I left things the way they are for a reason and I hope it sticks with you. I hope it doesn't frustrate."
The movie could. It's a risk for It Comes at Night to not pay off the mysterious plague and the stylish side effects that rip Travis's psyche in two. But the tactic gets under the skin; the way we feel when Travis's dog runs off into the woods, the shivers sent up our spines whenever that damn red door comes back into focus, is how we feel in the final seconds of the film. There's truth in the ending, however satisfying: when we die, very few of us get the chance to understand why. That's terrifying.
"I will say I care way less about unpacking how this, like the logic of it," says Shults. "What I care about is, and why I like the movie to have an openness is [that] it can kind of mean different things to you. I have movies I'll revisit after years of seeing and I see it in a new way. I'll see something new about it. When a movie can have that openness, that's what I really love."
According to Shults, a seven-year estrangement from his father, who battled addiction throughout his life, and a deathbed reconciliation where the dying man repented to his son, inspired It Comes at Night. He began writing the screenplay just two months after his father's death.
Shults knows he's testing the audience by holding back. "I feel like my movie, and in particular in this genre, people want to know what's going on, want it tied up and I'm not doing that, so it's probably extra frustrating. For me, it's like the storytelling I believe in and I don't approach a movie on a genre to genre basis. I just approach movies all in the same way."
So don't expect any post-screening revelations or spoiler-heavy Reddit AMAs. It Comes at Night is complete as incomplete. There are no twists or post-credit scenes to swoop in and comfort you. Some horror movies jump out at you for a thrill. Shults's stab at horror dredges dread from the deepest bowels of human experience. It's not always pleasant… but it's absorbing.
"Yeah, but the red door!" Don't worry -- it haunts Shults, too.
"[The] red door has been in my dreams," he says with a laugh. "But for me in the movie, it's like what the red door leads to. It's emptying out a lot of stuff."