It Comes at Night: The Fear of the Unknown

Trey Edward Shults’ transcendent It Comes at Night opens with a startlingly brutal death. Bud, Sarah’s father and Paul’s father-in-law, has fallen ill and died from a mysterious disease ravaging the Earth. In fear of succumbing to the illness, Paul, his wife, and teenage son rush to bury and subsequently burn their grandfather. Infection would mean death. After disposing of and starting to grieve for Bud, the family gets back to their normal routine until their life changes again when they are awoken in the middle of a night by a man rummaging through their food stores, hoping that he would be able to find some food for his wife and small child. Will, as he will later be called, explains his dire situation to the generous family and they agree to help him – but only if he agrees to move his family into Paul’s secured house deep in the woods and hopefully far away from any trouble. Will’s family arrives and Paul immediately informs them of the rules he and his wife have set up for the household: everyone will follow a routine, everyone will do their fair share of work, no one will open the red door, and under no circumstances will anyone go out at night. The two families quickly settle into this routine, but when the red door is mysteriously opened in the middle of night, tensions rise and tempers flare. This selected scene depicts their heated conversation, leaving the viewer on the edge of his seat. Three elements are vital to this scene: purpose and or/occasion, composition, and appeals and assumptions.

Reflecting on the genesis of the idea for of the post-apocalyptic It Comes at Night, Shults remarked, “I was in grief at the time I was writing. I had a rough relationship with my Dad; I hadn’t seen him in ten years and he got pancreatic cancer. I was with him on his deathbed and he was so filled with regret. It was a life-changing thing. Two months after that, I started writing and this spewed out of me in three days” (Stolworthy). This is vital for understanding not only the motivations of the writer, but also for understanding the dark tone and themes of his work. While It Comes at Night is a deeply dark and not optimistic film, it is not devoid of meaningful theme. After all, Shults crafted the film with a painful death on his mind. Death is first highlighted in one of the first images of the film: the 1562 painting The Triumph of the Death, which depicts the brutal effects of the Bubonic plague on a less-advance human race. The symptoms of the disease depicted in the film mirror the symptoms of the bubonic plague: the vomiting of black liquid, gangrenous flesh, and skin discoloration. Simply, this is meant to show that history – from the plague to the events depicted in the film – repeats itself. In essence, Shults has chosen the painting for both personal and filmic reasons. In the scene, both families argue over who has opened the forbidden red door. Prior to the arrival of Will’s family, Paul’s family led a seemingly normal life, mostly free of the dastardly disease. By all accounts, they were one of the last bastions of humanity. But, after Will’s family arrives, they devolve into the same state of the world: petty, violent, barbaric, and untrusting. The idea that history repeats itself connects to Sigmund Freud’s idea of a death drive, which is otherwise known as Thanatos (the Greek god of death). Psychology Today describes what the death drive seeks “The death drive seeks destruction, life’s return to an inorganic state” (Berry). Disease and death are inherently destructive events. Humanities anarchic actions often lead to such homicidal, suicidal, or even something as simple as verbal harm, displaying the incredible power of the death drive.

Compositionally, the best aspect of It Comes at Night’s pivotal dinner table conversation scene is how it uses light – or the lack thereof – to tell its story. In the disease-ravaged world of the film, electricity is no longer a viable option to provide. So, Paul’s family has resorted to using battery-powered lanterns as their primary source of light. The conversation has two sources of light, both indirect and direct. The indirect light comes from a lantern hanging in a hallway; the direct light from a lantern in the middle of the table. The shadows this creates adds to the ominous tone of the film and underscores the dark situation they are in. Similarly, the fact that in one instance Andrew and in another Paul is in silhouette intensifies the mystery of the situation and the character, which adds a rich subtext to the film (Berdan). That is: can and should Paul and Will’s family trust each other?

Drew Daniels, the film’s cinematographer, uses the camera to add depth to the film. Throughout the scene, the camera is fixed on its subjects, suggesting that there is some stability even though the situation they are in is precarious. The scene begins with an over-the-shoulder shot, suggesting that the audience is observing the two families talking. This adds to the suspense of the scene and ensures the viewer gets invested in the argument. We continue to observe the argument in the same view but after Travis levies the accusation that Kim and Will’s toddler son Andrew may have opened the door, we switch to an over-the-shoulder shot of Sarah and Travis. Throughout this exchange, the camera is level. The power dynamics of the scene have not shifted; the director is simply using the over-the-shoulder shots and stoic camera to build tension. The ensuing shot, a side profile of Paul, serves mostly the same purpose as the aforementioned shots: to build tension by providing the audience with a bird’s eye view of what’s going on inside his head. The power dynamics of the scene finally shift again after Travis reveals that Andrew had a nightmare, a key and revealing symptom of the disease. Paul knows that if Andrew is infected, there is a significant chance that he has infected everyone else, so his mood alters. Next, the camera is placed behind and above Andrew, making it clear that he has no power in the situation. The patriarchal Paul is sat directly across from Andrew; Paul looks down on Andrew and the camera (and thus Andrew) looks up at Paul. It is clear: Paul is in a position of power and controls every aspect of the situation; Andrew has not control.

Although the next shot of Andrew is mostly inconsequential, the following shot of Paul is cinematically and rhetorically rich. To begin, it is an extreme close-up, foreshadowing the importance of what Paul is about to say. It also is a low angle shot, reinforcing the idea that Paul is in a larger-than-life position of power and is a dominant force to be reckoned with. With that said, the ensuing close-up of Paul is perhaps the most important shot of the film because everything changes after it appears. Nevertheless, we quickly shift back to Andrew to reveal his reaction, only to swiftly move back to over-the-shoulder-shots for nearly the rest of the clip. This allows the audience a brief respite from the built-up tension. However, the clip concludes on an ominous note: with Paul, in silhouette, looking down on each person, scared of what may come (New York Film Academy). All of this relates to the Freudian idea of the id, or basic human instinctual desires. Everyone in the clip acts in a way that tries to preserve their self-interests (particularly for their family and safety). More specifically, though, it relates to the Freudian concept of eros, or the fervent drive to live. Paul and his family make the decisions they do because they want to prosper while the world is suffering and because they do not want to die (Kazlev). Really, the camera work in the film serves two very important purposes: to cement the fact that Paul is in power and to show that the relationship of the two families is untrusting, dominating, and toxic. A great film expertly uses the camera to tell its story; It Comes at Night is certainly no exception.

A good film similarly uses sound to convey its message. In every film, there are two levels of sound: what the characters are saying and what is occurring in the background. In the selected clip, we hear each of the characters talking, the background ambient noises, but no score. The fact there is no score – only the characters talking and ambient noises – is important because it shows both just how ordinary the conversation they are having is becoming and because it heightens the tension of the scene. Another brilliant compositional element of the clip is its editing. Its editing, particularly after Paul accuses Andrew of having the disease, is purposeful, controlled, and measured, increasing the tension and underscoring the theme of the film. Its sound and editing comes together not only to increase the tension of the scene, but to illuminate how phallocentric, or male-dominated as Lacan describes, the disease-ravaged world of Paul and Will’s family is (Bressler). The concept of phallocentrism is rooted in as it relates to his concepts of the phallic stage of development (the third stage of development that occurs from ages three to six that sees children realizing that their genitals can be a source of pleasure) and the subsequent development of the Oedipus complex, which is a central event in the development of the personality of a child. The development of the Oedipus complex ensures that the child fixates on the parent of the opposite sex and sees the same-sex parent as a rival for the opposite sex parent’s affection (Kazlev).

Although the film’s audience is general moviegoers that are capable of deciphering a layered, complex film (which is why the film is brilliant: it relies on its viewers intellect to solve the film and does not spell anything out), It Comes at Night makes an appeal to the emotions of its viewers by showing that kindness is oftentimes repaid by negative behavior and betrayal. It also makes the argument that people should trust only their family. Almost everyone in the world has living family, so this is a brilliant, exceptionally relatable theme that appeals to the emotions and to logic, also called pathos and logos, respectively. The film predominately uses to pathos because it shows very realistic people in harshly realistic situations, but it also effectively uses logos because it shows that when people have logical thoughts and rules (such as the rule that no one can go out at night), they prosper; when they have illogical thoughts, they do not prosper. These emotional and logical appeals are credible because the film shows the devastatingly negative consequences of trusting people other than one’s family and by showing that people are inherently interested in themselves, and secondarily their family first (like Kim refusing to accept that her son may have opened the door because he was afflicted with the disease, thereby endangering the lives of everyone in the house). If the film had shown the two families getting together in harmony, it wouldn’t have been a riveting film and its appeals to pathos and logos would have been utterly ineffective.

Set against the backdrop of a disease-ravaged world, It Comes at Night offers a chilling look into a world – and family – in crisis. Shults has crafted a film so rich and layered with thematic and other meaning. As a result, the film will be combed over by cinephiles for decades to come. He has done this in a way that draws upon his personal experiences, various compositional techniques, and smart writing that challenges the viewers views and asks: what, exactly, comes at night? Is it the fear of the unknown, an animal, a person, or something completely different? Perhaps he means humanity itself comes at night. Regardless, Shults has crafted a film any aspiring filmmakers could only dream of and should be immensely proud of his accomplishment.

Works Cited

Berdan, R. “Composition and the Elements of Visual Design.” Photography Composition Articles, 20 Jan. 2004, photoinf.com/General/Robert_Berdan/Composition_and_the_Elements_of_Visual_Design.htm.

Berry, William. “How Recognizing Your Death Drive May Save You.” Psychology Today, Psychology Today, 26 Oct. 2011, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-second-noble-truth/201110/how-recognizing-your-death-drive-may-save-you.

Bressler, Charles. “Psychoanalytic Criticism .” Literary Criticism , 2nd ed., pp. 146–163.

Elder”, Pieter Bruegel “the. “The Triumph of Death – The Collection.” The Triumph of Death – The Collection – Museo Nacional Del Prado, Government of Spain, 7 Feb. 2018, www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-triumph-of-death/d3d82b0b-9bf2-4082-ab04-66ed53196ccc.

Kazlev, Alan M. “Freudian Psychology and Psychoanalysis.” Psychoanalytical Psychology, Kheper, 26 Aug. 2004, www.kheper.net/topics/psychology/Freud.html.

New York Film Academy. “12 Of the Most Popular Camera Shots All Actors Should Know.” New York Film Academy, Student Resources , 5 Mar. 2015, www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/12-most-popular-camera-shots-actors-should-know/.

Shults, Trey Edward, director. It Comes at Night. YouTube, A24, 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRD-SQYzd6c.

Stolworthy, Jacob. “It Comes at Night Director Trey Edward Shults: ‘I Never Approached It as a Horror Movie’.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 7 July 2017, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/interviews/it-comes-at-night-trailer-trey-edward-shults-kanye-west-biopic-krisha-joel-edgerton-riley-keough-a7827566.html.