The title of It Comes at Night (2017) sets certain expectations. What exactly comes at night? But the survival thriller from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, set sometime after the ravages of an unnamed and unexplained plague have ripped through the cities and sent survivors into the isolation of the wilderness, isn’t about monsters (human or otherwise) who hunt in the dark. It’s more insidious than that, which is what makes it so unsettling and unnerving.
Our first image is of man, diseased and unable to speak, expiring as figures hidden behind gas masks try to comfort his passing. It’s both tender and alienating, a teary farewell turned mercy killing by terse, protective Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Shults continues directing in that vein. Everything is off-balance, the familiar always on edge. Their country home in the lush green forest has been boarded up and turned into a fortress, the gentle days are under constant threat of pillager and armed invaders, and the nights are plunged in isolation where every sound is a potential attack. So when they catch a man breaking into their home (which, to anyone on the outside, appears abandoned), they have to make a choice whether to believe Will (Christopher Abbott) when he says he’s just trying to find water and shelter for his wife and young son.
Ruth Negga earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Jeff Nichols’ intimate drama.
Loving (2016), Jeff Nichols’s portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving, does more than put a face to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Their 1958 marriage was a crime in the state of Virginia because Richard (played by Joel Edgerton with a terse determination) was a white man and Mildred (Ruth Negga, vulnerable yet hopeful) was a black woman. But this is not the portrait of a defiant couple protesting all the way to the Supreme Court. The title is more than just a form of shorthand or a clever double-meaning. It is the core of the film. This is about a marriage, a couple deeply in love and devoted to their family, who just want to live together in their home state.
Their courtship is presented in snapshots yet from the beginning it’s like they’ve been together forever, laying in one another’s arms with a natural intimacy. They live in an integrated pocket of blue collar families that could be a planet away from the segregation of the cities. When Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant he beams with a rare smile, like it’s the sign he’s been waiting for, even if they have to sneak across the border to Washington D.C. for the ceremony and set up a household in secret. Negga earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as Mildred and Australian actor Edgerton received a Golden Globe nomination for the stolid Richard, a man who looks like a redneck stereotype under his buzz cut and tight mouth yet is like a member of her family even before they marry.
I can’t believe that I missed George Romero’s Survival of the Dead (Magnolia), both in the theaters and on DVD, but that’s my life as a DVD columnist now: Kathleen Murphy wrote a fine review on MSN, so I spent my limited time catching up on films that weren’t already reviewed on MSN. I skipped The Back-up Plan (Sony) for entirely more selfish reasons: I had better things to do. Like a family weekend to celebrate my father’s 70th. He survived the festivities, thankfully, but I returned with a tight deadline. I did squeeze in a few before I left, however, like the great box set Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion), with a trio of magnificent productions from the golden age of Hollywood’s silent era (reviewed on my blog here), and Ajami (Kino), the Oscar-nominated drama from Israel that is far more worthy of the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film than The Secret in Their Eyes, a thoroughly conventional mystery from Argentina.
Set in the volatile Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, where Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians live in a wary détente surrounded by crime, mistrust and retribution, Ajami follows five separate stories of the families caught up in the web of violence, each finally entwining with the others until every life—and every act of violence—reverberates through the reluctant community. This searing drama film begins as with a ferocious act of violence (the drive-by shooting of an innocent bystander mistaken by Bedouin gangsters for their real target) that, effective as it is, unwinds as a familiar story of the criminal world’s violence hurting everyone in its blast radius. The difference—at first anyway—is the setting and culture that informs the characters and the story.