Thursday, June 15, 2017

It Comes at Night

This isn't a zombie movie or one with a tangible exterior threat in the way that the title or A24's oft-effective but somewhat misleading ad campaign implies, but it set off a few thoughts about the post-apocalyptic genre and why I should really be done with it that have been coalescing in my head for a while (at least since seeing <I>The Neighbor Zombie</I> at Fantasia in 2010).  So I may as well put them here, because the ideal film to relate them to is probably going to be seen in a film-festival crush where I can't give individual ones the attention they deserve.

There's a lot to enjoy about this corner of the horror genre, but part of the thrill of these movies is that they couple a certain sort of politically-incorrect fantasy with a matching tragic drama: What if civilization falls and the people best-equipped to survive and lead are the gun-owners or folks who can live off the land and fix things? It's a great dramatic irony, because that group is often seen as unsophisticated or even dangerous. Plus, there's the inevitable Hard Decision, the loved one who falls victim to the disease and as a result needs to have his suffering ended, especially if the disease could spread or he could become a flesh-eating monster. The two halves connect; you need the pragmatic, sometimes violent skills because the sophisticated medical treatment that would otherwise prevent a pandemic is failing. As an occasional cautionary tale, this works fine.

At least, until this sort of thing gets popular - I remember a Boston Underground Film Festival programmer lamenting that it's great that anyone with a decent camera and some decent make-up skills could make a zombie movie, but did they all have to send their movies to her? - and The Walking Dead shows up, and suddenly you've got this despair being pumped into your home weekly. The occasional story that asks desk jockeys like myself to consider just how screwed we'd be if we lost our infrastructure on the one hand or uses the too-far-gone loved one as a metaphor for assisted suicide is thought-provoking, but you get exposed to it continually, and it's a different message: That any societal structure larger than one's family (genetic or makeshift) is doomed to failure, that ultimately problems must be solved with violence, and, most perniciously, there's nothing to do but let a terrible illness take its course; the sick can't be helped.

I think a lot of people, both in the audience and in the industry, miss the cumulative effect of this, or make a hard turn away from it because the small group against an unceasingly hostile world is more easily-digested drama. The World War Z adaptation loses its framing of how the world comes back together, with the resulting movie narrowing back down to one person fighting for his family (at least, before a different last act was substituted). The Walking Dead moves from Hershel's farm to a prison, even though the series never made a compelling argument that Hershel was being particularly foolish in any way other than keeping what he was doing a secret; the end of that arc was re-asserting the Hard Decision narrative by fiat, not merit.

I'd really like to make a plague movie where that's the twist - the zombie virus is actually an incomplete version of a regenerative agent, and the true horror comes when the people who have nobly put down their infected friends realize that they've done something terrible, and that the badass leaders they've fallen in with are, in fact, psychopaths who have been looking for a problem they can solve with a gun their entire lives. Get right into the right-wing fantasy nature of these movies and refute the heck out of it, making an argument for community, research, and not going straight for a weapon in a scary situation. As much as I enjoy the cathartic nature of a good action or horror movie, ones that simply indulge one's fears without helping to face them are not worth a whole lot to me.

It Comes at Night

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2017 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

This is an impeccably-constructed and presented film, and with a genre-heavy couple of months ahead of me, I shall be actively avoiding seeing things much like it. There's a rot at the base of this sort of post-plague horror that I gave a hard time abiding, an embrace of being paranoid about your neighbors and culling the sick that I'm growing weary of at this point in time.

It starts with one of the genre's go-tos, a family putting down a member they love because he's too far gone, with Paul (Joel Edgerton) and seventeen-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) bringing terminal father-in-law Bud (David Pendleton) to the back to burn and bury the body, though mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) is unsure sending Travis is the right way to go. Not that Sarah is any sort of sentimental pushover; when they catch Will (Christopher Abbott) breaking into the house, she's the one who sees bringing him, wife Kim (Riley Keough), and son Andy (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to live with them because you can't just have desperate people knowing where your well-supplied house is.

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults builds and executes its scenario very well. The film is striking visually, with excellent use of single lights in pitch darkness. What's revealed as a good-sized family home in daytime shots seems tighter and more claustrophobic when the light only extends a few feet in any direction, and the space in question is often the attic from which Travis eavesdrops on much of the rest of the house; night seems to be uniformly lacking moon and stars, like somebody has turned out the lights as the world ends. Dream sequences seem legitimately feverish, and an obvious trick of presentation is done much less ostentatiously than it might be.

Full review on EFC.

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