It Comes At Night

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 it is 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.

Society has broken down, judging from the candle-lit, rationed dinners and the tedium of housework the trio slog through behind boarded-up 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 up 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 short odds on survival. After all due diligence was observed, and 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 skilfully 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 foeges 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.


Whenever viewers lament verbal exposition as too on the nose, overly oratory, or detrimental to pacing you’re easily reminded of the alternative; the type which develops through action. Though you’d be wiser than to accept as better exposition anything merely meeting the requirement of being “other.” This isn’t to accuse Lanthimos of deliberate opacity, simply a moment to ponder the diciest of two necessary propositions, though the film is the latest in a line of several on hermetic existence equally adamant in refusing to acknowledge motives. Most of the film’s pertinent junctions arrive with the assured realization of the insidious intentions behind the bizarre ways of the family at the center of Dogtooth.

As the film is reluctant to feed its audience the requisite information in one go, those of the patience and disposition to trust the process will reserve judgment for the end and be rewarded to a degree. Lanthimos shows none of his cards prematurely. Beginning with a tape recording of what sounds like a precursory brainwashing exercise before a hypnosis program it can feel somewhat daunting to feel out his early drift. I stopped watching next figuring the words would come in later when I couldn’t keep up with their new meanings. On the second attempt it was easier to let go of biases and allow myself to soak in the proceedings. This wacko family lives in isolation and has crafted an alternate reality as a result, and save for the working father, the members get by on routines that border on the ritualistic with reward and punishment to show for their behavioral progress.

The entire cast is unnamed save for a prostitute-for-hire who works the gate at a factory the father is employed in. She comes in to provide release for the son’s periodic blue balls but is allowed free reign to interact with the two younger daughters. She barters accouterments for cunnilingus with and from the elder daughter—a notion the son fails to recognize as part and parcel of foreplay—after it is established that stationary items won’t suffice for Christina. The dry, monotone delivery of everyone, especially the younger characters,  along with their juvenile grasp of taste and boundaries is portrayed in a pale, sunwashed palette with yellowish hues and lots of negative space filmed with a fixed vantage point. That plus an almost cold open and the absence of a soundtrack create an immersive but muted atmosphere conducive for rubbernecking; you can’t look away. And you can’t unsee the shock and extremes that are sure to follow. More impressive is how the lowkey mood allows the breaking point to arrive without warning. Yes, the children do act out but there aren’t signs to ascribe their rebellion from curiosity and idleness to one long summer or a lifetime of pent up impulses.

Whether Dogtooth functions as an allegoical attack on censorship, parenthood or, altogether, as a portrait of perversion viewed from a fly-on-the-wall perspective would ultimately amount to little in terms of impact. The film is not wholeheartedly cryptic although to decode every lexical substitute might as well come with the access to its production notes. The same applies with the symbolism behind cats and airplanes for example. Luckily this was never the intention and there is enough intrigue to keep you keyed in on something else. The in-group setting chosen for the film recalls the one in THE SEVENTH CONTINENT, or the communities in Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE and most recently PARTISAN, making it an enduring trope with the results as varied as the methods employed. In terms of temperament, Haneke is as accurate an approximation as any.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Childish Gambino. James Franco. Take note. The name you want to emulate is Tom Ford. And I suppose for it to fly under the radar for one cinephile is one thing. For one married to a brand-savvy consumer of all things constitutes a double dosage of shame. Ah, had to have been his fragrance or cosmetics line now that I remember. But for the leap to occur from the runway to the red carpet is duly curious—just not enough to sound my metal detectors since, on the one hand, I’d never heard of his debut, I haven’t the slightest intention of playing catch-up, much less keep an earmark on any future work. On the other hand the film comes on the heels of Nicholas Winding Refn’s foray into similar territory: THE NEON DEMON.

Tonally, a gulf of contrast exists between the two but elsewhere the sensibilities are similarly accounted for. The art world and fashion are hollow domains where the shallow and vain roam. But whatever your background, it helps to have big-name draws headlining your vanity project like a Jake Gyllenhaal or one Amy Adams, who, notwithstanding etymology, is the real anchor of the film and a damn fine one too. An A-Lister goes some way to secure some credibility to backers and studio heads, yes, but there still is the end result to conted with. And crafting chops are definitely on show as the film brims with cinematic flair, with none proving as pronounced than the Lynchian variety employed in the opening credits. Think ERASERHEAD’s fever dream and THE ELEPHANT MAN’s voyeurism where the ghastly Radiator woman appears on a cabaret stage but this time with a selection of obese women exhibited in place of the titular elephant man.

For better or worse, Ford abandons such deliberate theatrics in favor of a conventional-looking film. The main hook in the film this time is grafting a story on top of the present narrative. Ford skillfully weaves a patch of narrative textiles without the faintest illusion of juggling multiple timelines. As Susan (Adams) reads a book dedicated to her by an ex-husband of some twenty years, the novel is serialized in its own flashback as she recalls past events with the instigator, Edward (Gyllenhaal). Intercut with the dramatized novel and the flashbacks is her current state of mind, teetering between her shock at the disturbing content of the book and creeping discontent at her lot in life which comes to realization conveniently as the novel’s events unfurl.

Since brevity demands it, the book is also titled Nocturnal Animals and the protagonist’s name is Tony Hastings. Hastings is off-roaded by local goons in an unnamed Texan backcountry and the encounter escalates into the double-murder of both his wife and teen daughter. Unsurprisingly Hastings is also played by Gyllenhaal and his wife and daughter are the decidedly redheaded Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber. Some time later with the tireless efforts of an ailing sherif Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) enough leads crop up in the investigation.

Nostalgia as a blast from the past naturally leads to servings of longing and nagging what-ifs. One can not help but look to Derek Cianfrance or Gaspar Noe in BLUE VALENTINE and LOVE as recent examples of the dormant but staying power of regret and yearning. Except in both cases the past and present are squarely divided. In NOCTURNAL ANIMALS the present timeline (Susan’s) takes a back seat to both past and fiction at least in intensity and immediacy. In turn the present invokes a dreamlike aura, in spite of life butting in in the shape of a philandering husband and a struggling art studio; her daily routine outside the artifical framework of the book is fleshed out as a reminder of what is factual. A somewhat novel alternative is when reality and imagination intersect creating a intertextual insight into, as an example, how we perceive adaptations of books into films. Why else is Hastings played by Gyllenhaal, with daughter and wife so closely resembling Susan other than her own projections and subjectivity?


Nicolas Winding Refn occupies a unique place among active filmmakers but also a precarious one. Revered without being critic-proof, his films decidedly garner polarizing sentiments. As a whole his latest batch forms a loose trilogy lukewarm in its unmistakable predictability, while individually each film is phenomenal, posing a conundrum for anyone outside of his following of loyalists to introduce a Refn film to the uninitiated. His latest, The Neon Demon, is the natural progression of recent esthetic inclinations. If Drive was his most ready for mainstream consumption, its follow-up flirted too closely with experimentation. And The Neon Demon blends signature violence and customary compositions with a fully realized vision of that fine balance at last.

Jesse (Elle Fanning), by eventual indication, is the embodiment of an ideal sorely missing in her chosen profession. In having her hail from Georgia Refn conceives her as the all-American archetype of the girl-next-door variety. Until she moves to LA to pursue modeling against all odds, storming past a roomful of would-bes and aspirants with figures more in line with type than hers is, but I suspect this dissonance is neither intentional nor indicative of a flaw. More a casting preference more of which will pose other dilemmas for personal, objective reasons. Like Keanu Reeves in a brief, miscast role as the motel manager she’s staying in. He pervs on her and tries to turn her boyfriend on the jail bait next door all along proving a tonal distraction to contend with on top of the surrealist puzzle that is the film. That his sidekick is your run-of-the-mill hick is suggestion of Refn wanting his man all along results be damned considering Christina Hendricks also returns to Refn World except this time for one meager scene. The idea is that hers is a casting choice so acerbic in what it tells knowing her physique is a far cry from the gilded waifs she’s tasked with churning out as an agent.

The film mixes conventional storytelling with the cerebral and when viewed from afar the result is jarring despite an engaging presentation and the foreknowledge that Refn will eventually dish out the brutal and outrageous. At first Jesse is mostly a cipher, a non-factor, and mostly Refn’s primary attack on the body-image machine and authorities on glam. She moves up, gets signed to an agency and turns yet more heads as she accrues enemies and upgrades from a no-name photographer/boyfriend (Karl Glusman) to potential casting couch predators. The photo-shoots (the film begins with a grotesquely themed portfolio-building that shows her dead from a sliced throat) evolve to elaborate deification in one scene. Naturally this gets to her head as soon she succumbs to delusions and speaks in hypnagogic platitudes to none other than herself. As if self-soothing or possessed.

One episode puts the film in another gear when she swaps the motel for her friend Ruby’s (Jena Malone), who conceals from her that she is housesitting in Hollywood. Perhaps it is not, but the empty pool looks a great deal like a precursor from Sunset Boulevard and reeks of the same rank and decay of a former screen goddess. The film soars and never looks back but regrettably you’d wish more of its dreamscape sensibilities were featured to balance a weak script. “Being pretty pays,” at one point Jesse proclaims but is at once disappointed to discover the garish mansion she is now in is not personal property and there is an abstraction to the revelations that no one is shown at home, anchored to a permanent address. That underneath everyone is uprooted and unhinged pending their corresponding breakthrough. Or breaking point.

Beforehand cinephiles online wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to reveal the visual kinship between Suspiria and The Neon Demon. Usually this is expressed by transposing similar stills or God forbid gifs from the two films. Douche move, meme-feigning shit, in short. Fans of Giallo are in for disappointment however since the homages to Surpiria are few and easy to miss if not consciously reached for. It is not a like-for-like reporpusing of a classic nor is the influence blatant but legacies and visual triggers are such that they closely work in tandem. Which I suppose earns the film credibility as it succeeds as a sensory delight. Again, Refn employs a periodic shift between verbal exposition and pantomimed expression but he also devotes an inordinate amount of time with the movers and shakers of the scene when the intimate mise en scene proved plenty effective on its own.


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Somewhere between the speed boats, standard-issue supercars, and deep cover meet-ups, Miami Vice demands an increasing threshold of incredulity. By no means is this a flaw except while on the one hand you have to contest with suspension of disbelief to a point, you also end up struggling to keep up. Lost in the curt retorts and snappish dialog—mostly Sonny’s murmurs—is half the spoken lines in Mann’s script, notorious as ever for dropping pronouns and use of jargon-heavy dialog. Couple that with a possibly botched boom job and inaudible lines and it’s a jumble too difficult to follow without subtitles. And that’s the way most cinema was intended to be consumed. Vice fails there. And yet somewhere in the mess is film to be salvaged. So it either demanded boundless reserves of toleration or an outright reinterpretation of the shifting stakes throughout its duration. I prefer the latter, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Continue reading