It Comes at Night is a highly misleading title for this film. Actually, everything about the marketing campaign is misleading. It’s not really a traditional horror film at all. Aside from a few disturbing images and jump scares, its primary focus is horror of the psychological and atmospheric sort, rather than any physical monsters.
Of course, this brand of horror is very much to my taste. The most frightening things, I’ve always believed, are not what we see, but rather what we imagine. Ultimately, the root of all horror is the unknown, because in it the human mind traces all the most terrible threats.
And from this, it should follow that It Comes at Night would be a truly terrifying film after all, because it certainly provides the audience with plenty of unknowns. But in spite of that, it’s not as scary as one might expect.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll begin by summarizing the plot–don’t read ahead if you don’t want to know the spoilers.
Historical dramas are tricky. The director has to balance telling a story with a satisfying dramatic arc with staying at least reasonably faithful to the facts of what happened. Since life rarely conforms to neat three-act structures, this is always a difficult feat to achieve.
Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1960s Virginia. Interracial marriage was banned in the state, and so, after several encounters with law enforcement, Richard and Mildred are forced to leave their home state and live in Washington D.C., which recognised their marriage.
Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy,who referred their case to the ACLU. Ultimately, it resulted in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which the Lovings won, legalising interracial marriage throughout the United States.
This is a summary of the events depicted in the movie, and if it sounds rather dry, let me make it clear that this is merely the framework of the film. The real meat of the story is in the interactions between Mildred, Richard, and their families and friends–as well as the occasional lawyer, police officer, or journalist.
Much of the film depicts everyday events in their lives. Richard and Mildred went to work, shopped, cooked, cleaned house and raised their children like any other couple. It is that basic normality which underscores the injustice driving the film’s narrative: that such a healthy family should be forbidden brings home the sheer immorality of the law.
Because the film is almost completely focused on Richard and Mildred, rather than the court battle surrounding them, it is critical that the actors portraying them be able to carry the film. They are more than up to the challenge. Ruth Negga portrays Mildred as a kind, sensitive woman who ultimately realizes that she is fighting for more than just herself, but also for many other couples. She is intelligent and strong, often without ever saying a word. Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, portrays Richard as a man who may lack education or sophistication, but who is driven by a profound decency and love for his family.
Both Negga and Edgerton do terrific work. I worry that their roles may not be flashy enough to earn them the credit they deserve, but both are absolutely marvelous at conveying so much emotion in such subtle ways.
Despite the brilliance of its stars, Loving doesn’t completely succeed at balancing historical realism vs. the necessities of drama. Sometimes scenes go on a bit too long, or don’t resolve themselves in anything dramatically significant. It’s no coincidence that the poorest scenes in the film are the ones in the latter half which involve the Lovings’ lawyers, and from which the Lovings themselves are absent.
There are nit-picks I could make here and there about the historical accuracy of certain lines of dialogue, and a few of the reporters didn’t look authentically 1960s to me. But these are minor gripes, and it seems a disservice to a wonderful film to dwell on such things.
Loving is a quiet film about decent, moral people who love one another, and therefore it won’t get much love from the folks who go to movies to see glitzy CGI special effects and anti-heroes betraying each other. In the present political climate, however, I think we could do with a few more Lovings, and a lot less of the other sort.
I have a tradition of watching a horror movie around Halloween. This year, I selected The Thing because Joel Edgerton is in it, and I’ve thought he is one of the best actors around ever since I saw him in Jane Got A Gun earlier this year.
The Thing is a prequel to a 1982 film of the same name. I haven’t seen that one, but from what I have read, the plots of the two films are the same: a team of researchers in the Antarctic are terrorized by an alien life-form that can disguise itself as a human being.
It is a strong setting. The isolated Antarctic has potential for an eerie atmosphere, and the shape-shifting monster attacking the trapped team could have made for a tense, Alien-like horror picture.
I say “could have” because it squandered its potential. The biggest flaw was the wildly inconsistent behavior of the monster. It would attack people, replicate them exactly, and seemingly copy all their memories and knowledge. Sounds pretty smart, until you realize that in its normal form, The Thing was powerful enough to just wipe out everyone there with brute force.
Also, it was a major plot point that The Thing could only copy organic material; not artificial stuff like fillings in teeth. Again, this was a cool idea, but it was completely contradicted by the fact that The Thing apparently could copy the clothes its victims were wearing, because whenever it appeared in disguise as another human, it was always dressed identically to the real person prior to their demise.
None of the characters were especially memorable–Edgerton’s was probably one of the better ones, but that may have just been because he was the only actor with whom I was familiar. The heroine of the movie, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is not bad, but the script is muddled as to whether she is supposed to be just a regular scientist fighting to survive or an Ellen Ripley type of character.
In the end, The Thing suffered from the most common problem in all horror fiction: it showed the monster too much, instead of relying on characters and atmosphere to create a mood of fright and tension.