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

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.

That’s not a huge knock on the movie as a whole, which is otherwise pretty good, but what audience reaction can you expect from an ending that’s so studiously un-cathartic? When the credits rolled during the screening I was at, there was palpable murmur of “That’s it?” and several people storming out, as if in the absence of closure their time had been wasted. I didn’t feel like my time had been wasted, but I understood the disappointment. An ending where nothing is explained and no one wins is like telling the audience that there’s no afterlife. Even if you agree that that’s true you’re not exactly going to be rushing out to give the guy who repeats it a muffin basket. As the fictionalized version of script guru Robert McKee tells Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, “Wow them at the end, and you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”

It Comes At Night is almost the perfect opposite of that, a movie that’s next level almost until the very end, when it disappoints. If I think back to the most celebrated movie endings in recent memory, the first thing that comes to mind is The Sixth Sense. It’s not my favorite movie in the world, but it is a useful example of what a true crowd-pleasing ending looks like. The fact that Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time is a surprise, but it’s the kind of surprise that we kick ourselves for not having seen coming, because the clues were all there (thus, it fulfills fictional Robert McKee’s other rule about endings — “don’t cheat”). But the fact that it explains, that it’s a surprise twist we should’ve and could’ve seen coming isn’t the only reason it works. In fact, most of those same qualities could also describe The Village, which is almost as hated as The Sixth Sense is loved.

The difference is that whereas both are twists and explanations, the Sixth Sense‘s ending retroactively expands the universe of its story. Wait, that guy was dead? How many other dead people were there? It gives the entire movie a subtext, a hidden world, and inspires you to rethink and re-experience the entire thing from a different perspective. It adds another ghost into the machine. The Village’s ending basically does the opposite. That village beset by supernatural wood creatures? That was just a lie some parents told to keep their kids to stay on a weird ren-faire commune. It’s basically the movie telling the audience that Santa Claus doesn’t exist at the end. Of course they hate it, it kills the ghost and gives us a diagram of cold steel.

It’s a credit to A24 that they actually released a movie like It Comes At Night, that’s such solid filmmaking and so worth watching in spite of its ending, and that they actually gave it a real advertising push. That’s far more than we could expect of most distributors and part of why movie lovers tend to love A24. But if you leave the audience with the feeling that the universe is even smaller, more confusing, and unjust than they thought, don’t be surprised if they don’t thank you for it.