If I had one bone to pick with Trey Edward Shults it is that he delivered the almost perfect cinematic undertaking only to abruptly break pattern when it behooved sensibility not to; right near the end. How can you write about a horror film with palpable scares and an unresolved diversion without outright denouncing it, because this is precisely the feeling this chamber piece had left me with? It is a post-apocalyptic affair without a speck of special effects. A contagion nightmare without so much as an inkling of backstory or mode of infection, and a genre film rife with dramatic undertones, with group dynamics ultimately eclipsing what never arrives at night. Or during the day for that matter. Quite simply it is a film content to be. For that reason it is best to not stress on what “It” denotes in the title and enjoy the end product for what it is except that would be making concessions for the failed promise of its genuinely frightful opening passages.
A minimalist’s paradise and an independent filmmaker’s dream it was indeed to draft an intimate milieu of under a dozen acting roles in an end-of-times scenario. And it works with a set design missing the elaborate props and visible detritus of a crumbled civilization. Not even a crippled infrastructure is shown beyond a solitary deserted road and severed power supplies. Call it the hostel/backpacking brand of filmmaking, and a nod to the frugal spirit and tableside confinement of Byrkit’s Coherence. Cooped up in a house they rarely venture out of, Paul, Sarah, and their teenage son, Travis, are bracing an unidentified outbreak. A buffer room—in reality a makeshift sickbay—sits between the entrance and an ominous red door leading into the rest of the house. First impressions burgeon rapidly with Sarah’s infected father in that room, and what an ugly way to go, making his mercy killing by way of lead and fire less harrowing in context. And Travis is tasked with doing the honors. Yes, Paul is that type of tough love ministers you’d be excused for taking him for the highschool football coach instead of its history teacher.
Beyond, society has broken down, judging from the candle-lit, rationed dinners and the tedium of housework the trio slog through behind boarded windows. A standstill more horrifying than the austere, nocturnal existence they must now call a routine. Then one night a ruckus interrupts their first days of mourning. The intruder, Will, is subdued then tied to a tree to ascertain if any signs of infection would appear. Less is more, the credo would seem, and in a film staking so much of its credibility to this adage much is gleaned from its establishing scenes compared to the remaining hour and change. Not understanding the threat, it is a brutally chilling sequence drawn out to the next morning for round two of questioning as the invader is left to languish overnight in a fiendish purgatory. Thinking the place was abandoned, Will breaks in looking for water for his wife and child, a journey of some fifty odd miles into sudden death that he’d embarked on on foot. Though little adds up, Paul takes his word for it seeing the desperation. And if this stranger’s pleas don’t hold water, the idea of more people and food variety gives everyone better chances of survival. After all due diligence was observed. So the two set out in a pickup to bring the stragglers to safety.
The film slows down when the other family arrives; Kim and Andrew—Will’s wife and son. But conventions don’t so much as threaten to emerge before they’re banished in favor of character development which, during a relatively meager runtime, never appear as if they’ve been crammed in. And Shults skillfully adds layers of nuance to his lean film without sacrificing pace in the slightest. Stanley, the family dog, triggers the next act when one late afternoon he barks at something unseen in the woods and chases after it forcing everyone to retreat without him. By now Travis is visibly tormented by it all; the dog’s disappearance, his grandfather’s death, and the presence of Kim. The suggestive power of dreams is broached as those three events reverberate into his sleep, blurring reality and fantasy. None of the visions depict a time other than these immediate moments. The woman, most especially, ought to resonate the strongest in a pubescent male considering the circumstances. For all we’re shown Travis knows no reality prior to the plague and Kim constitutes his first encounter with a fuckable female. There is time for a hard-on in the Armageddon is the message, and why should evolution be denied a cameo?
But it is really paranoia after all which forgoes unabated to the fore and, throughout, the seeds of doubt are evenly planted in Shults’ miniature world of doomsday hysteria. Travis, in an early scene, eavesdrops on the newly arrived couple’s conversation from the attic. Bookending this amiable lull is that later as the two patriarchs reminisce over a drink Will inadvertently contradicts a minor detail he shared previously. What these two scenes imply is that Will was never on the level. On one count at best. The conversation Travis listens in to was the get-to-know-you banter surrounding what Kim’s ex looked like, suspiciously in line with how recently acquainted couples unearth romantic pasts. And while we can’t decidedly prove, we can deduce and speculate still. And including the film’s more distressing developments Andrew never conspicuously refers to Will as his father, directly or otherwise. Put two and two together now. The tempest reaches its straining terminus when Stanley returns bleeding in the front room and tensions boil over who’d opened the door first, thereby possibly contracting the disease. Forget that Andrew can’t reach the bolt; Will is a liar, and that makes for compelling drama on its own. All the while Travis’ visions had become a recurrent baggage punctuating the proceedings. And though an erratic frame to infer from considering their conflicting content they doubtless hold an answer to some of the story’s questions. Was any of that necessary though? Quite how or why was it that in a fortified setting would the entrance conveniently open to allow a final twist to take place? And can I say with conviction that the entire enterprise can endure the convulsions of one particular detour and come out the other end unscathed? Must creative heads always resort to this trail of red herrings to spark theoretical conjecture and conspiracy mongering when quiet appraisal would suffice? Indeed, the near flawless hit.