In the end credit roll for Matthew Holness’s Possum, you see in the fine print that it was based on his short story of the same name, published in the anthology The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease. Weird that the source material would be buried in the credits and not shown during opening titles, as it is in most cases. I haven’t read the short story but I’m going to track it down now that I’ve seen the movie. I suspect it’s not going to be all that different from the movie, because even though it has a running time of an hour and a half, there’s perhaps only about half an hour of story.
As obscure as the source of the title for this movie is, it’s also a major spoiler for the largely inexplicable events that happen in the second half, because I expect that some people would approach the movie by Googling the meaning of it. In that respect, it’s too clever for its own good. I waited until after the movie ended to do it, and you should too.
It’s unfair to say I disliked Sun Choke, because it has a few good things going for it, but after getting around to finally watching it after about six months, I came away from it mostly unimpressed and though I wasn’t angered by it, it prompted me to take to Twitter to get a couple of things off my chest. I’ll preface this review by letting you know that it’s being written in the immediate aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. What does that have to do with this dark psychological drama? Read on …
If you’ve seen this movie, maybe you felt the same way I did after watching it, maybe not. It polarized many a watcher when it was released opposite Tom Cruise’s mostly unentertaining The Mummy on the back of a minimalist advertising campaign, because as well as minimalist, the advertising is borderline misleading.
Ostensibly billed as a horror movie, it essentially gives away all of its salient images and lines of dialogue in the trailer, as well as adding a somewhat leading blurb about turning “men into monsters”. Hand in hand with the title, the goal was clearly to lead people into the cinema feeling as if they were getting the kind of horror movie promised by the trailer and eerie posters – some kind of apocalyptic story about retreating to the winderness to escape … something.
I’ll be honest, I expected a tired old alt-zombie story, and I was only half interested and uninspired by the trailer. I’m not a huge fan of Joel Edgerton, but he’s a watchable enough actor, and I enjoyed The Gift just fine. But I never intended to see this one in the cinema, and this was bolstered by mediocre headlines, and a lukewarm response from my daughter, who did see it during its limited theatrical release. Having now seen it, my critical reaction to it matches my prior expectations, even though the actual movie turned out to be far different than what I imagined.
Edgerton plays Paul, the head of a three person, multiracial family living in a large house deep within a thickly forested region of the USA – it looks like Oregon or Washington. The house is boarded up, and Paul, who (if I’m remembering correctly) was a CPA prior to the current, mysterious situation, keeps the house so buttoned down that there’s only one exit/entrance door, and he keeps the only set of keys on a string around his neck. This early on in the movie, it suddenly struck me that I could be in for a lot of underwriting. Paul is the only white character in the beginning scenes, and I couldn’t readily accept that Kelvin Harris’s Travis was the actual biological son of Paul. There’s nothing about this actor that looks remotely biracial, so I’m choosing to assume that Paul is actually a stepfather – this is a big deal to me when I consider the script to have been underwritten, because the movie is, essentially, one long exercise in tension, yet there is none of the inherent conflict one would reasonably expect between a young man and an assertive stepfather, in light of the situation. Travis is a bewilderingly passive character throughout, even though much of what little plot there is revolves around him. The characterization is one of the few things I genuinely liked about the movie, unfortunately, even this aspect is underdeveloped. Does Travis have a crush on Kim? Not enough to fuel any following scenes with the sexual tension one might expect would naturally arise from that kind of seclusion – though in fairness, Travis is written with the emotional maturity of someone aged eight, not seventeen. Carmen Ejogo, who plays Travis’s mother is barely sketched in, and Riley Keogh’s Kim gets better service from writer/director Trey Edward Shults but fails to be anything other than a moderately developed character. Christopher Abbott plays Will, the other father figure, and there’s always the feeling of inevitable conflict between both men, but Act 2 does very little to ratchet that up. It isn’t until the Act 3 conclusion where this happens, but not enough foundation was built on which to let this play out, and it felt hollow to me. I didn’t feel any great sense of either building cameraderie between the men during Act 2, and there’s not enough ambiguity created in the Act that tries to justify Paul’s mild, internalized paranoia.
Kim is the wife of Will and mother to their young son Andrew, and after a tense confrontation toward the end of Act 1, both families come to share the big house in the forest. Act 2 is full of dramatic moments for sure, but there is very little actual story to be found here. Aside from some nightmares experienced by Travis and one overtly mysterious happening, there is just not a lot of material here, and watching it I was reminded of another seemingly-post-apocalyptic drama, Z Is For Zachariah. In fact, it’s fair to say that both movies could easily take place in the exact same situation, but while Z unfolds as a pastoral, slow moving tale of loneliness, It Comes At Night is the flipside, where almost every minute drips with tension. This is VASTLY helped by Brian McOmber’s stunning score, because without that particular element I feel the movie would be very flat indeed.
I’ve more or less mentioned the positive things I took from the movie, but the negatives are very big. For one, the story exists almost out of context. We know something happened outside of the forest, and it involves people getting sick – but at no point do any of the characters speculate as to what is happening, or how widespread it is, or indeed why it’s so bad that fleeing the cities seems the only viable option for survival. No need to spoonfeed plot, but Shults seems determined to pry mystery from the omission of something so simple as logical human interaction. At no point in the movie does the greater context come into play, and I found that to be baffling from a writing point of view. I read a brief interview with Schults that revealed this as being a choice of his, knowing that some audience members would feel “frustrated” – I was only frustrated by the end result being unexplained and mysterious only because of omissions like this, not because of what was actively written. Just because a movie has no answers, doesn’t mean the questions the audience asks are not valid, and I felt that some of the questions I had were due to things being vague and unclear, sometimes breaking the movie’s own sense of internal logic. If Paul has the only set of keys, for example, and the small group are tensely debating how, at a major plot point, the only door was opened, placing them ALL in danger, Paul is never asked by anyone if he opened the door. That’s bad writing that springs from the Deus Ex Machina school of drama. There are plenty of badly written movies out there, and It Comes At Night never scrapes any barrels, but the underdeveloped plot elements are striking. In fact, when there ARE so many good elements (the movie is very well directed, and looks terrific, and the dialogue was pretty sharp and naturalistic), the only thing that left me with a profound sense of mystery at the end was why on Earth Shults made the writing choices that he did.
The human mind is a complex thing. Where it resides is the great unfathomable mystery, and is as much a debate for philosophy as it is for science. We will one day fundamentally change as a species once customizable DNA becomes commonplace, something which, as a transhumanist, I welcome. But the body in comparison to the mind is simple. A biological vehicle piloted by the human mind, the real “us”, it’s no more than a complex Lego set. But the mind is subject to very subjective stimuli, from an astonishing array of sensory input to organic chemistry. No two people are alike inside, behind the everyday screen we put up, showing people what we want to see. It’s perhaps the most fragile part of us, easy to damage, hard to repair.