‘It Comes At Night’ Postmortem: Audiences Aren’t Dumb For Craving Catharsis

Senior Editor
06.14.17 35 Comments

After generating critical acclaim and plenty of buzz during a brief festival run, Trey Shults’ It Comes At Night opened this past weekend, and the results — $6 million from 2,533 locations — were according to most, not quite what the studio (A24) was hoping for. BoxOfficeMojo writes that expectations were for a $10 million+ opening, while Deadline, citing an anonymous source, speculate that the production budget plus advertising had to cost at least $15 million, and “even if this movie opened to $15M, it would still stand lose $5M-$10M at the end of the day” (whatever that means).

Point being, movie lovers hate to see a movie they love lose money, and naturally, It Comes At Night‘s lackluster performance is generating the usual “this is why we can’t have nice things” buzz around the movie-sphere. An even greater cause for consternation is the fact that non-critic audiences seem to hate it as much as critics loved it. The film generated a a 43% audience rating to go with its 86% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an almost unheard-of D from Cinemascore.

So what gives? Is the average moviegoer just an idiot philistine who will forever be a speed bump on the road to true artistry? Well, not quite. I’m not here to tell you that most people aren’t stupid, because evidence for that abounds. But in the case of It Comes At Night, it comes down to endings.

It Comes At Night is a tense, spare, paranoid little thriller that’s much closer to Contagion or 28 Days Later in a snow globe than your typical horror movie. It’s set entirely at a farmhouse where a family — a father (Joel Edgerton), his wife (Carmen Ejogo), and their teen son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — live off the grid in a fortified compound to protect themselves from some unnamed apocalyptic plague. A stranger (Christopher Abbott) blunders in one day looking for food, and rather than confront the plague itself, the film focuses instead on the tense relationship between the survivors, and the paranoia and difficult choices people face in an atmosphere of limited resources and existential threat.

It’s a good choice, and the movie is nothing short of brilliant at maintaining tension, and at communicating complex emotional relationships between people with little more than a glance. Hence the good reviews, and deservedly so. People who watch movies for a living are arguably better at recognizing some of the nuances of quality and especially at celebrating unconventional narrative choices.

But if you want to know why It Comes At Night isn’t really taking off with the general audience, the ending is the thing. With a movie so tense and sparing and claustrophobic, there’s some expectation that an ending is going to offer some kind of catharsis, to burst that tension and make it all worthwhile. Without spoiling too much, It Comes At Night‘s ending doesn’t do that. It’s an ending where nothing is explained and no one wins, and even worse, it never follows up on several intriguing story strands. It just leaves them wandering in the purgatorial woods like the Russian in the “Pine Barrens” episode of the Sopranos.

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