Tag Archives: a24

It Comes At Night asks what will scare us the most come the End of the World

It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about movies about the Final Days in terms of how “they reveal the real monster/virus/nuclear holocaust to be man,” especially after The Walking Dead repeatedly beat the idea into the ground with a barbed-wire baseball bat over the course of 7 steadily more interminable seasons.

Yet still, I feel like it’s worth bringing up when discussing director Trey Edward Shults’ new film from A24, It Comes At Night. Let it not be because I am a walking cliche, but because I cannot think of any film in quite some time that so embodies that ethos. Not only in the fact that there is no monster (which is sure to irritate many an unsuspecting theatergoer), but for the fact that it has such an uncompromisingly bleak view of what we will do when the chips come down, and the terror that the family unit can wreak.

Set sometime after a plague has devastated humanity, a family – father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) hidden away in a remote cabin in the woods buries their infected grandfather. One night, a man (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house, seeking supplies from a house he says he believed to be uninhabited (if you believe him).

Paul takes the man captive and then lets the man, Will, bring his family, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), back to their house to survive together. But being trapped in a desperate scenario makes for darker impulses.

It Comes At Night is almost certainly not the movie the marketing is selling or even that the title is selling. Implied in the images of desiccated men with blackened eyes and ominous doors and shadowy woods is that there is some monster lurking and an “IT” that comes at night, a zombie or a vampire or something that can be defeated to beat back the darkness.

The groans and moans I heard exiting the theater likely ties into the precise lack of any of that. It Comes At Night is ultimately more deeply unsettling than frightening, its scares eliciting gut-wrenching rather than adrenaline-raising.

But based on Shults’ previous film Krisha, that should be no surprise. Krisha was something of a horror film in this vein, a creeping dread set in around when its lead would eventually fail her family.

Ultimately, It Comes At Night is in the same vein. A film of family horror, where the shading of the relationships is the animating force, slowly pushing the dynamics to their breaking point and seeing what’s left after the devastation. Where its trust and the lack thereof is what destroys everyone.

There’s something more fully formed in Shults’ nihilism here. In fact, in general, It Comes At Night is impressive for seeing the massive leaps forward Shults has taken in the things that animate him as a filmmaker. That nihilism is at the core, a fundamental distrust in the nature of humanity and his belief that people will ultimately let each other down, is fully formed here. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s a good thing, but that is the impulse that electrifies It Comes At Night, a sort of sighing resignation that we will ultimately eat each other and maybe we deserve it.

It Comes At Night has also pushed forward from a filmmaking perspective. Krisha felt like an excessive ape of his mentor Terrence Malick, It Comes At Night alters that free-floating camera into something more meditative and focused. It maintains the ethereal beauty and the glide, but it’s absolutely willing to lock and linger now, putting emphasis on stares and glances and the stoic faces.

Shults’ filmmaking is the painting here, his writing keeping a tight and twisty narrative that tends towards ambiguity (occasionally to the film’s detriment) but being largely serviceable. Perhaps the biggest inconsistency here is acting.

Edgerton is great, even if he’s basically doing the same performance he does every time. Ejogo is great, but she doesn’t get much to do, same goes for Keough. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is truly great, given the most complex character and absolutely knocking out of the park. Christopher Abbott is…serviceable. Not actively bad, but seems just kind of lost in a character that’s more about hiding things than revealing anything.

But It Comes At Night’s successes far far outweigh those failures. It’s a portrait of the end, a dark and nihilistic twist on the idea that during the Apocalypse, we will be more dangerous to ourselves than anyone or anything else.

Grade: B+

If you want to be there for the future of film, see Moonlight

As a critic, my job isn’t necessarily to recommend. My job is to discuss and contextualize and hope that whatever that takes the shape of pushes any reader towards a fuller understanding of film and to push themselves with this art the same way I do. I’m not necessarily endorsing or denouncing, though that’s going to happen just through speaking positively or negatively. I leave what the reader does up to them.

Except this time. If you’re reading this, go see Moonlight. Seriously. You, by the nature of the people I know, are most likely reading this within fairly short travel distance of a theater showing this film. If you care about guiding the hand of Hollywood towards making films from unique voices or featuring diverse faces and stories, then get out there and support this one. If you care about film as a medium and want to see something that pushes boundaries and does something vital and alive and staggering, then get out there and support this one. Hell, if you just need a good cry, then get out there and see this one.

For those of you who haven’t already left, fine, you need a little more convincing. Then let’s talk.

Writer/Director Barry Jenkins brings us Moonlight, a story of self-discovery and identity as a black gay man in Miami. It follows a man named Chiron through three periods of his life.

First, as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), a young boy bullied for his shyness and his size. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) is an emotionally abusive addict. His only friend is a boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner). A drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali), along with Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), takes Little under his wing and tries to give him some lesson about who he could be.

Next, as Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a gawky and awkward teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. Bullied and isolated, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) remains his only friend. His home life has fallen further apart as his mother slides further into addiction.

Finally, as “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), looking very different from the man we once knew. Musclebound with grills, he’s a dealer in Atlanta, trying to leave the person of his youth behind. A call from Kevin (Andre Holland) reconnects him with the life he once knew.

Finding words for Moonlight is a struggle. It’s such a vital and alive piece of work, one that is about the smallest gestures and the accidents of being human. It’s an experience that reminds me how much film exists in the smallest motions, in the juxtapositions of images and sounds. It’s incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime work.

I struggle to talk about it because it’s still a film I’m trying to pick apart, trying to understand what made it what it was, why I was an emotional wreck in the back of a theater.

Of course, as much credit as possible is due to writer/director Jenkins. In a just world, this is an announcement for the next great auteur, a filmmaker of singular voice and unifying purpose. From the opening shot, a slow track through a neighborhood following Ali’s Juan, there’s a certain reverence to the world, a languorous and painterly way that Jenkins moves his camera through.

Truly, this is a poetic work. It’s evoking a sense, a feeling, trying to grasp what it’s like to exist in multiple worlds and not feel like you belong in either. Moonlight is the feeling of trying to understand who you are and only grasping it piece by piece, year after year. Of never feeling quite whole. Jenkins has created something enormously evocative and deeply intimate, understandable through all lenses.

Understandable through all lenses, but refracted through a single one. This is a film about the black experience, about the queer experience. It’s specific about that, about the cultures those create and what it’s like to grow up as both. Again, it all comes back to Moonlight’s intimacy, that it makes you so much feel your connection with it, that it pulls you in and has you live beside it.

It’s the work of a very small ensemble of actors as well, all doing absolutely amazing things. Harris and Ali are doing incredible work here, both feeling like forces of nature, pulling Chiron along to a path he had so little control over. The work of the actors playing Kevin are all extraordinary, but none moreso than Holland, who does remarkably complex work as the adult Kevin who pulls Chiron back to Miami.

But this is a film about Chiron, told through him. The three actors who play him are all remarkable in their own way. Hibbert gives Chiron such reservation, the placid surface hiding turmoil underneath, holding his silence in just the right way to suggest so much. Sanders gives Chiron such damage, understanding the pain that his conflict brings him and how much the little joys that he gets to have bring him. Rhodes gives Chiron everything, turning in a staggering performance that builds on the work the other two do and giving him the last shading, understanding what has fueled Chiron to become who he has and what he will choose to be.

What every one of these actors knows, and what Jenkins understands most of all, is how much our interactions are in the looks and the gestures and the smallest thing. Every inch of this film, every moment is loaded with meaning and decision, every move motivated, every action has purpose. Every song choice adds richer texture, even the slightest shift in focus keeps us exactly where we need to be as an audience. It’s rare to find a film so deep in its detail.

This is a film about love and life. Rebuilding and devastating in equal measure, Moonlight is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of film. See this movie. If you do nothing else I’ve advised, see this movie. This is an important work and a work that is so well worth your time.

Grade: A+

In American Honey, the kids are gonna try to figure it out

American Honey earns its title more than any other that has so deigned to take that adjective.

When you call a movie “American X,” you have decided to make a larger comment on the society surrounding it, whether you choose to understand you’ve done so or not. There’s a certain weight to that decision, a certain heft to your commentary. Even the most harmless moment is uniquely and distinctly of “America,” whatever that is for you.

Andrea Arnold, the writer and director of this film, is not American. Yet she has made a decision to show us what America looks like to her, through the eyes of the underclass. This is a road movie, yet unlike many road movies, it is not a journey for one person. I mean, yeah, it is. The needs of narrative cinema demand that we have someone to hook into and American Honey has Star (Sasha Lane).

Yet, the journey is ill-defined and the goalposts few and far between. Early in the film, she makes the decision to leave the toxic family unit shoved on her by a mother who didn’t care and a father who took a different purpose for his daughter. She’s drawn along by Jake (Shia LeBeouf), a rat-tailed, slicker-n’-hell young man who is part of a troupe of traveling magazine salesfolk.

She joins them on a road trip through America, selling an ideal of themselves and what they offer (sometimes it’s to help the church, sometimes it’s a way to go off to college) to both the rich and the poor. These kids have nothing but each other and the promise of a little cash passed to them by Crystal (Riley Keough), their controlling boss.

I make it sound like there’s more narrative structure that there is, giving this thing an idea that it has a plot, a place it might go. It doesn’t, and I realized slowly over the course that I wasn’t going to see the beginning of Star’s story and I was certainly not going to be there for the end.

Arnold isn’t interested in that. Arnold wants to give us a piece, to capture in her 1.37:1 frame some idea of what America looks like for the youth below the surface. To capture the joy and the hope and the fear and the meaninglessness of the world for a group of Americans who now feel outside of society.

In some ways, American Honey is the film Malick lost sight of sometime ago. A human portrait of a sun-baked Midwest. Arnold’s characters are another part of the landscape as she drifts her camera through the world and lets it be captured for a moment. Sure, to a large degree, her images are gorgeous, the same naturalistic wonder that Malick is still capable of, without Malick’s current tendency to lose it in himself. But it’s not such a pulled back portrait.

In some ways, American Honey is a jukebox musical. Music is the lifeblood of this film, constantly pulsing in the background, rather than blaring over the top. Characters experience it on the radio and in stores. They know it and they sing along with it and it scores the moments of their lives, without them knowing it. Rihanna’s “We Found Love” may just be playing in a grocery store, but it becomes indicative of the moment that Star changed her life, and its reprise marks the same.

In some ways, American Honey is an issues picture. It’s a capture of American poverty from a foreign perspective, but without the condescension or the “Woe is them” fawning that tends to come with these stories. It’s the facts. It’s real faces showing what it means to live day to day. I’ve seen the faces before, they’re very real. Arnold understands poverty as an extension of an America that’s let people down, and gives them a chance to reclaim a future, or at least a poverty of their own making and their own design.

Is it optimistic? Not necessarily. The film suggests a certain acceptance of the way things are. But at least if they’re going to be that way, there’s some good to be done in that system.

Arnold’s also fortunate enough in her tale of the Way We Live Now to have two actors at its core who embody a certain self-reflective, devil-may-care youth. Sasha Lane, who plays Star, is brand new (this is her first film), but she already displays an extraordinary confidence with her character work. The looseness works in her favor, her natural charisma and screen presence shines.

Shia LeBeouf, is however, not so new. In all his art stunts and our parodies, we forget that LeBeouf can act, and American Honey stands to be his best performance. His chemistry with Lane is extraordinary and his ability to embody cockiness without ever allowing the nuance to leave the performance is a rare one. I know fun can be made, especially with that ridiculous rat tail, but LaBeouf is doing really complex work here, and that should be recognized.

As universal as American Honey is as a title, it won’t be a universal portrait. It’s a 3-hour slice of life about people who go nowhere and learn nothing. There’s a reason I’m a critic, not a marketeer. I can’t sell that.

I can simply state that more than any film I’ve seen in some time, American Honey understands what it feels like to be young and poor and trying to be alive. It’s gorgeous and vibrant and those who understand will feel, to quote Star, “like fucking America.”

Grade: A

Swiss Army Man finds the heart of humanity in vulgarity

Every year, there’s one movie that touches me like few others ever have and no other film that year does. A film that induces a reaction that can only be called something close to religious ecstasy, a flashing neon sign from the heavens of why I do what I do and love what I love.

Once it was a romance between a man and his operating system, one of the most poignant meditations on love and isolation. Once it was a thrilling tale of rebellion and hope in a post-apocalyptic world gone mad.

This time, it’s a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe. That’s right, Harry Potter) saving a man, Hank (Paul Dano), stranded alone on an island.

I’m not fucking with you. Really.

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