Culture

Two Films about the Future of Humanity, the Good and the Ugly

Will it be more ‘It Comes at Night?’ horror or ‘Tomorrow Ever After’ hopeful?

By Dorothy Woodend 16 Jun 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

It’s easy to get a little tired of humans. What a species we are, fussing, feuding, and murdering away with near tempestuous abandon, all the while managing to rationalize everything in the name of righteousness and self-interest. 

If you would like a little demonstration, here comes Trey Edward Shult’s new film It Comes At Night — a poisoned chamber piece of humans at their worst.

Your first question may well be, what is “It”? Is it a killer clown, a zombie apocalypse, a bad news bear, a marmot with a vendetta? You will have to wait to the end of the film to find out. But “wait” is the wrong verb. You will have to slog it out in a grim little cabin the woods, along with a small group of humans who’ve holed up to ride out a pandemic that has apparently decimated the world. There is little in the way of introduction to the story. No time or place is given; there are only the blunt and brutal facts of survival.

The disease ravaging the population is not a pretty thing, rather it is a pustule-ridden condition that kills as much as it disgusts. Victims barf up blackened blood, go red-eyed and catatonic, and then presumably drop dead. Our very first glimpse of a victim is an elderly man, his skin covered with raw oozing patches and twisting nests of darkened veins, heaving out what looks to be his last breath. The poor old codger is placed in a wheelbarrow, taken out to the woods, and summarily disposed of by his beloved family, son-in-law Paul (Joel Edgerton) and grandson Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)

So, welcome to hell, population now down to three people and a dog.

Paul, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis have fashioned a safe zone for themselves, a boarded up house with a singular entrance (a blood red door, naturally) that remains chained and locked. Inside this homemade bunker they exist in a state of quiet desperation, eating sad suppers and not referring much to the state of horror in which they find themselves. This paralysis is interrupted when a man breaks into their house. The intruder is Will (Christopher Abbott), a young guy who claims that he was only searching for food and water for his family. After tying Will to a tree for a few days to see if he is carrying the disease, the two families decide to join forces, the better to defend what they have, and fight off the predations of the outside world. But of course, the seeds of destruction are buried within, and I am sure you can guess what that means.

Trailer for ‘It Comes at Night.’

Can’t we all just get along, one might well ask? For a moment, it seems like it might be possible. The two groups have food, shelter and plenty of guns and gasmasks. There is even some time for warmth and affection to grow. Dinners are shared. Will teaches Travis how to chop wood, and the two women tend to the chickens and goats. Add in a little free love, and you’d have a full on hippie commune situation. But alack and alas, tis not to be! This is a horror film, after all, and such brief idylls are only setting us up for a big fall. And so, one day in the woods, Travis’s beloved dog Stanley sees something in the trees and takes off after it, followed hotly by Travis, and finally Will and Paul. While Stanley howls and barks, another noise greets the three men. Is there something else out there? Is there really a monster, or is it a creature of fevered human imagination?

Meanwhile, Travis has taken to wandering the house at night to escape his nightmares of dead crusty Grandpa. A chance meeting in the kitchen with Will’s young wife Kim (Riley Keough), and Travis’s dreams take on a kinkier aspect. So the wonders and horrors of the body lie down together, and no one is innocent. Even the youngest member of the house, Kim and Will’s young son, Andrew, little more than a toddler, has a few secrets to keep.

Director Shult knows his way around a thriller, and as he slowly ratchets up the tension, even the most benign situations begin to take on an ominous hue. A quiet conversation over a drink turns dark, as Will contradicts his own story, and Paul registers the lie with a flicker of understanding. Distrust and suspicion, and worst of all self-interest, breed and bloom in the dark, sending out ropes of rationalization, fronded twisting tendrils that unfurl gently into the minds and hearts of the people in residence, and whisper, “Better to kill them, before they kill us.”

It Comes at Night is a serious affair, well constructed and performed, and certainly effective. What it sets out to do, it does, with little in the way of its mandate of proving that despite our more tender proclivities — the softer, squishier stuff of kindness and gentleness — we humans are still murderous animals.

So, is the disease simply a manifestation of this inner condition turned inside out so that all of the lesions of the soul and cankers of the heart are made visible? The film is smart enough to simply let the audience pick up the pieces. But as the inevitable climax staggers into view, it is hard to not wish yourself elsewhere.

The idea that humans are innately self-destructive is almost too simple, too easy. After all, we make film after film celebrating our own annihilation. The summer is already clotted full of imminent destruction, from the animated Cuisinarts of Transformers: The Last Knight, to the CG destruction of GeoStorm. Even our own ancestors hate us.

By the time It Comes at Night reaches its final horrific resolution, I started to feel a little tired of violence and death. And some part of me said “Nay! I reject this. I do not want it. I shall not have it,” and stomped off to find something better.

Where to go? One film that has not found a Canadian home yet but has stuck with me is Ela Thier’s Tomorrow Ever After. If you would like to see it, call up your local rep theatre (at the Vancity Theatre, perhaps, or The Rio) and demand a screening.

In some fashion, Tomorrow Ever After is the polar opposite of It Comes at Night, although both films share a similar plot device of dealing with the unknown future. But unlike the more familiar science fiction scenarios — plague-ridden, zombified, blood red dystopias where humans and monkeys are ripping each other to shreds — in this future world (2592 to be exact) everyone likes each other. There is a lot of hugging going on, greed and violence are archaic notions examined in history class, and money is only seen in museums.

The twist is that the real dystopia is right now. In the future, our particular period in history is referred to as “The Great Despair,” which should tell you a little something. A woman named Shaina (Ela Thier) who is accidentally stranded in the past when her graduate program experiment goes awry helpfully relates this information to anyone who will listen. But no one in the year 2015 has much interest or inclination to help, with the exception of a would-be mugger named Milton (Nabil Vinas) who just needs rent money.

With little more than her handy dandy implement — a universal tool that functions as translator, computer and occasional ATM card, Shaina must find her way back to her own time.

Trailer for ‘Tomorrow Ever After.’

Like the very best science fiction, Tomorrow Ever After offers a clear and bracing look at our current cultural moment. The feeling is a bit like cool water, splashed in your face, a bit shocking but also it wakes you up. The feeling is a world away from It Comes at Night’s cabin in the woods, with its moldy filaments of suspicion, snaking through the darkened hallways and rooms, looking for stuff to feed upon and finding ample supply.

As Shaina fumbles and bumbles her way through our world, greeting everyone with a hug and a relentlessly cheerful disposition, something remarkable begins to happen. You see yourself in this story, and it ain’t pretty. It is a rare film indeed that makes you think, “I would like to be different,” and that opens up a space inside you that you didn’t know was there, a sad and empty space that longs for sunlight and human touch. In this day and age, it almost feels miraculous.  [Tyee]

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