Friday, July 7, 2017

The delayed name exchange

The following may not seem the most interesting point of entry into a discussion of the masterful new film It Comes at Night, from Krisha director Trey Edward Schults. However, it does provide one of the reasons I don’t consider the film quite as masterful as some people do, namely my editor at ReelGood, who awarded the film a perfect 10/10 rating.

There are probably two schools of thought on why a film might be good, and the importance of these metrics may depend on the film. One is that a film needs to be based on a solid foundation of logical, believable action, which gives a sturdy structure for the themes and creates the conditions for profound truths. The other is that the profound truths exist in artistic flourishes or powerful moments, rendering some of the day-to-day details unimportant. And as I said, I judge different films by different criteria.

You could argue that It Comes at Night should be judged by the latter criterion, but I don’t. It’s a consummately realistic film, even though it’s in a genre that tends to be a bit fantastical – the apocalypse/post-apocalypse movie. Then again, in the era of The Walking Dead and numerous other examples, we’re in the habit of taking the end of the world as seriously as possible. It’s far more interesting to consider what would probably, rather than probably not, happen in this scenario.

It Comes at Night is a prototypical example of this trend. Which makes some of its choices on the day-to-day details all the more problematic.

Namely: Why do they wait so long to exchange names?

The rest of this post gets into the plot of the movie a bit, without including any really big spoilers, but if you want to go into it completely fresh you should consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

If you’ve seen the film, you know that Joel Edgerton’s Paul nearly shoots a man he catches breaking into the house he’s spent so much energy trying to safeguard. The man (Christophter Abbott) claims it was an innocent case of trespassing, as he did not think the house was occupied. We spend most of the rest of the film trying to determine if that, or anything he says, is a true statement – and “we” includes both us and Paul. In the short run, Paul can’t make that determination, so he ties the man up to a tree with a bag over his head, where he leaves him overnight. There may have been more humane ways to handle the situation, but when you’re talking about an infectious disease that prompted him to shoot his afflicted father-in-law in the head and burn the corpse in the opening scene of the movie, no preventative measure might be considered too extreme.

After a night tied to the tree, the man is given the chance to provide “truthful answers” to a series of Paul’s questions in exchange for water, and possibly, freedom. He passes the test well enough to convince Paul that he can trade him food in the form of goats and chickens in exchange for being able to return to the house some 50 miles distant where his daughter and son are staying. Paul and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), discuss things and decide that both the most humane thing to do and the best thing for them is to retrieve the man’s family, along with their livestock, and have them all live here in this house.

So Paul and the man set out on the drive to the location the man says is where he’s been staying, with the man shackled on the back of Paul’s pickup truck. On the road they are ambushed by two guys with guns, and at first it seems as though the man may be in league with them, as he appears to jump off the back of the crashed truck and scamper into the woods while Paul is underneath, hiding from the incoming gunfire. Only after Paul neutralizes one of the threats do we realize that the man is neutralizing the other by punching him into oblivion.

Then, and only then, does Paul finally say “Hey, what’s your name?”

Will is his name, as it turns out.

Really? Wouldn’t have asked him this before then?

I know I’ve spent a long time writing us to this point for what may seem like a fairly trifling screenwriting crutch, whose necessity Schults could probably argue if he were pressed on the matter. But my point is to illustrate how much had really transpired between these two for them to still not know each other’s names. I suppose the point could be that in the kill-or-be-killed plague world they find themselves in, pleasantries like “what’s your name?” are a luxury no one can afford, or are simply not relevant. Still, it obviously struck me – as I would not otherwise be writing this piece.

And I probably still wouldn’t be writing this piece if a similar type of sin weren’t committed a few minutes later.

So (spoiler alert) Will turns out to be okay, at least in the short run, and they retrieve the family and integrate this family into their regular routines. Wife is nice, son is cute. Everything looks good. What would appear to be at least a week passes. Could be two weeks, though I supposed it could only be three or four days. One night Paul opens up a bottle of whiskey so he and Will can indulge in a kind of carefree enjoyment of one of life’s experiences that has been completely foreign to their new mode of existence. Adding credibility to Will’s case that he’s a good guy, he asks if Paul’s sure he wants to waste the whiskey on him. “You don’t have to open that,” he says.

Over the ensuing sipping of the whiskey, Paul casually asks him two questions that seem like they also would have come up before now: what he did before the plague started, and some basic details about his home life growing up – namely, parents and siblings, that kind of thing. Will’s answers to one of these questions is problematic and sends the narrative down a different path, but we don’t need to get into that part right now.

Now, I can understand there not having been the need before now to ask about his biographical family background. But wouldn’t one of the very first thing you’d ask somebody – after their name, actually – be what kind of work he or she specializes in? Especially when you’re trying to determine a) if you trust this person, and b) what particular skills this person might bring to the table in addressing an outbreak of a pathogen of unknown origin and communicability? I mean, if this person were a chemist, a doctor or a biologist, wouldn’t you want to know? If this person were a cop, wouldn’t you want to know? If this person gave a vague answer like “I did odd jobs,” wouldn’t you want to know that too?

Again, Schults probably needed this to come out only during this scene, and not earlier, so Paul could catch Will in a lie – or a possible lie, anyway. But I think there’s got to be another way of doing it. You don’t want to stretch the verisimilitude to the breaking point.

To say that this took me out of the movie would, of course, be a major stretch. And it’s unfair that by writing extensively on two very minor parts of the movie, I’m neglecting a discussion of the many, many things it does right. But I do think there’s a kind of core credibility that is threatened by such minor sins. And, well, you can never figure out what kind of movie – even a really good one – will inspire you to rant about a pet peeve on your blog.

And though this movie is worth praising – remember, I called it “masterful” in the opening paragraph – I guess it did not blow my mind as much as the 10/10 given by my colleague suggests it should have. My 8/10 is masterful enough. A movie it sort of reminds me of is last year’s The Witch, which was also exceptional in certain aspects and lacking in certain others, also earning an 8/10 for me. Thematically, it has a lot in common with The Witch as well, with paranoia and nebulous threats aplenty, never mind a similar remote woodsy setting.

But if I am just a tad underwhelmed by Schults’ movie – and I am – it could just be because we’ve gotten a lot of looks at the potential end of the world by plague in the last ten years, and It Comes at Night does not sufficiently differentiate itself from the others to be worth really dwelling on. It’s a very good version of that, but probably not a groundbreaking one.

However, if only the characters had introduced themselves to each other a bit earlier ... who knows.

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