Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night
Texas director purges his demons with latest film
"Let go." Those words have special meaning for Trey Edward Shults. It's not just that they open his new film, It Comes at Night, but they were the last things he said to his father before he died.
The Texas director has drawn on family intimacy before. His debut feature, 2015's award-winning Krisha, starred family members and drew directly upon their shared history, while his new film parses those experiences into a horror-tinged exploration of grief. Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are the last remnants of a nuclear family, holed up in rural upstate New York, trying to evade a pandemic that has seemingly wiped out most of the world. Or maybe not. For Shults, that's the core of the film. He said, "It's about the unknown, and it's about fear of the unknown – the ultimate unknown being death."
That was a lesson he learned in part from the death of his estranged father from pancreatic cancer. Shults said, "He was fighting. He was not ready to die. He was not ready to let go, and you could tell. For me it was miserable, because I knew he needed to, because he was in so much pain, and it was awful. I said those words. I said, 'It's OK, you can let go. I love you, just let go,' and he audibly let go."
Three months after that moment, he started writing It Comes at Night, with the story seen through the eyes of 17-year-old Travis. Shults said, "I see a lot of myself in Travis. He's a good kid, and he's a good person, and he's naive, but he just wants the best." At the same time, he's living in a world where the threat of violence, of disease, even of mercy killings, is always just at the edge of the forest. "Pretty soon, I think you start realizing his nightmares are a gateway into how he's processing his environment."
Because the world is explored from Travis' viewpoint, it is Edgerton as Paul, the father trying to keep his family together and safe, who is more often the protagonist. For that casting, he had another Texas filmmaker to thank. Shults worked on some test shoots in Austin for Midnight Special, and when director Jeff Nichols found out he was a filmmaker in his own right, he demanded that Shults send him the original short version of Krisha. The pair stayed in contact, with Shults describing the Cannes-lauded Nichols as "like a big brother filmmaker if I need help or anything."
The help came when he was casting Paul, and he increasingly thought of Edgerton. The Australian actor had worked with Nichols on both Midnight Special and Loving, and Shults knew his ease as an actor with silence and space would work with his script's quiet foreboding. He said, "I texted Jeff and he was like, 'Don't worry, I'm on it.' He sent Joel a text: 'Take this kid seriously.' Joel read the script the night he got it, had feedback the following day, which was Thursday; we met Monday in L.A., and Tuesday he decided he wanted to do the movie."
There's a strange balance in those filmmaking connections allowing Shults to tell a deeply personal story that spun out of the darkest and most dysfunctional shadows of his own family. "I think, at the end of it, it is very cathartic. I've always seen this movie as a purge, of purging my demons and getting it out."
It Comes at Night opens June 9. For showtimes and review, see Film Listings.