If You Go Down To The Woods Today, You’re Probably Going To Die
Some of the most successful dramas, horrors and science fiction films owed their power to the unknown, or indeed our unknowing. Given the infinite creativity (and paranoia) our wonderful little minds can manufacture and run riot with clanging every emotive/Danger Will Robinson fire bell in our heads screaming imminent danger. To actually show the danger releases some of that pressure, as if we see it, we can attempt to quantify it, maybe even conquer it.
The extremely skilful approach of Trey Edward Shults on his second feature film as director (and writer) on ‘It Comes At Night’ (2017) harnesses that pure unease of the unknown, with additional aspects of the great King of horror Stephen. Taking familiar and everyday aspects of life and turning them into objects of imminent peril, what once brought us comfort and solace, now brings potential death. And it’s that remorseless potential, relentless, every new day has death knocking on your door, but not in an existential way as in the parameters of a normal functioning society, as society is no more.
But we don’t know what has happened. As if waking up from an accident, where we’ve been in a coma for a long time, the world has completely changed. Paul (Joel Edgerton) is boarded up in a large ominous black wooded house in the forest. He’s there with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and their dog. Out of necessity there’s a regimental approach to daily existence. An unidentified and extremely contagious plague or disease has swept the land, killing anyone it touches within a day. It’s feels like Purgatory, or Hell.
Precautions and routines are in place for survival, maybe they evolved from Paul’s profession as a teacher, maybe knowledge can keep them alive. But does knowledge outweigh humanity and compassion which seems to have been potentially jettisoned.
That of course is tested when as situation brings more people into the fold, bringing hope but maybe threat too. But if you don’t help people in need, maybe you are already dead.
It would be wrong to go any further into the plot, as it’s confidently spartan, which is one of it’s great many successes. It really is the case that less is so much more in this film. Seemingly isolated in the middle of a forest, the house is somewhat forboding with it’s funeral timber cladding, the boarded windows let in no light, so inside is just as dark, like a giant coffin. Paul has boarded up the home that is now a fortress so there is a single access point, a door that looks like it had been eerily painted in the dripping blood of the dead.
The calm lasts for a time, then the most seemingly innocuous of events change everything. Fear begets fear, friend is now foe, maybe family too, death (like your heart) is pounding on that red door.
The marketing I’ve seen for the movie is doing it a disservice though. There’s hints of some evil entity at play in the trailer, which is not the case, but it’s much better for it. If there had been such a force, our minds would have qualified it, dealt with it, what is going on here is much more, brave too, and sinister. This is psychological and sociological horror which is actually more monsterous.
It plays like a stage play, tight simple scenes, set inside the dungeoned house, or close ups. Beautiful cinematography that has deathly shadows everywhere, as if the plague itself seeping through the wood of the forest, and the cladding, then skin.
Edgerton is on excellent form, with everyone else steeping up to match. Such elongated fear tends to leave folk subdued, but permanently on edge irrespective of routine, and that edge is deeply etched into everyone’s face and eyes.
It’s an excellently constructed and played out drama, which despite the misleading marketing should be seen. It’s bold and very well crafted film making which really shows what talent can produce on the most meagre of budgets.
8/10 ‘It Comes At Night’ is in UK cinemas now.