This is not only a spoiler-heavy post, but a spoiler-reliant one. Even if it’s spoiling ambiguities, they’re ambiguities you may not want to know about. If you haven’t yet seen the film, I’d suggest not reading further.
Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night ends with a series of scenes that are even more elliptical and insinuating than the rest of the film. (Which is very insinuating and elliptical!) Of course, in early reviews (like that by Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey), this ending — and much of the film’s (very spare) detail — was avoided for the sanctity of your viewing experience. But now that it’s been out for a bit, it seems the best way to parse and puzzle together the film’s themes and intent is to discuss the ending — and, simultaneously, the best way to figure out what’s going on at the end is to parse and puzzle together the film’s themes. So. This is that dizzying thought vomiting loop of a post, which will hopefully, somehow, leave us with some clarity.
Though It Comes at Night centers around two families, the only character whose interiority it reveals is that of Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis. He’s a 17-year-old seemingly stuck for life, by mysterious external circumstances, in a house with his increasingly paranoid, gun-slinging, gas-mask sporting parents. (Paul and Sarah, played by Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo, respectively.) But in this world, everyone whose parents are still alive would, it appears, be best off fitting that description: the only way to survive is to avoid the weird plague that gives you buboes and maybe hallucinations, and then kills you.
Trey Edward Shults has spoken in numerous interviews about conceiving/writing the film in the month after his alcoholic father (who he’d seen on his deathbed after a long estrangement) died. As such, he’s said that the perspective most aligned with his own is that of Travis, the youngest character, and seeming behavioral observer/bystander to a world gone mad on both a global and microcosmic level. Shults told Slate:
The ultimate unknown is death—I think that’s all over the movie. But there are worse things. And there’s a line you can cross that’s too far, and it breaks things, and if we keep functioning like this, and if we keep going in these cycles, we’re going to destroy ourselves. It’s inevitable. We need to take a step back. Losing our humanity is going to be a lot worse.
Fundamentally, we’re watching that loss of humanity through the eyes of the most sympathetic character (and an actor who portrays this exquisitely and painfully). Travis is a character who staunchly retains his humanity, or so it seems.
You, viewer who I trust has watched the film, likely recall that its final act begins when Travis finds Andrew, the child of the family who’ve (forcedly) taken shelter with his parents, asleep, quivering, in Travis’ deceased grandfather’s empty room. (At the beginning of the film, Sarah’s father catches the plague, and is taken out back, shot, and burned by Paul.) Travis grabs Andrew’s hand and walks him back to bed; shortly after that, Travis notices that the red door — a door that’s fundamental to Paul’s survivalist strategy, which remains closed and bolted at night — is open. Beyond the door, now, is their grandfather’s dog, mauled and dying.
When Travis recounts the events of that night to his parents and their (again, semi-captive) guests (Kim and Will, played by Riley Keough and Christopher Abbott), the parties bifurcate to fatal ends. Travis’ family wants to believe that Andrew opened the door, whereas Andrew’s family suspects Travis. The bolt is apparently too high for Andrew to have reached. Paul recommends they all retreat to their own quarters for a day — seemingly just so everyone can cool down, but more likely because the sickness will reveal itself in one of them in that time if it’s there. Travis listens in on the family; Andrew sounds infected, and Travis expresses concern that if Andrew is infected, so, too, is he. Paul and Sarah thereby accost Kim, Will and Andrew — and we never get a good glimpse of whether or not the latter is sick. After a brief but excruciating struggle, Paul and Sarah shoot and kill every member of the other family, as Travis watches in horror. Travis then runs to the bathroom, and it’s hard to tell the difference between being sick with familial revulsion or being sick with the plague. His mom says the same words to him that she seemingly said to her father before Paul mercy-shot and burned him; it seems they do the same to Travis. At the end, Sarah and Paul are alone, waiting, themselves, to die. Sorry if you never smile again.
So, with all of that, the question remains: was Andrew sick, did he open the door, and did he infect Travis? Or, since when we do see into Travis’ head, it’s in nightmare form, should we not trust him as a reliable narrator? Based on what Shults has said about the familial origins of the film (and based on his first film, Krisha), this final ambiguity seems like the film’s clearest message. Can one truly escape certain familial legacies and tendencies? The fact that he keeps seeing his grandfather in nightmares, bloody-mouthed and covered in pustules, shows his preoccupation with questions of unimpeachable legacy, trauma, and cruelty. As his parents’ humanity has slowly been stripped away by their conditions, has his, on a more subconscious level, done the same? This is at the core of his fears; he’s clearly the most empathetic character in the film (the only one whose care isn’t limited along familial lines), but is there a chance that simply existing within the festering morality of the familial household might rub off on him?
Like Melancholia or Take Shelter, this is mostly a contained apocalypse, where the question isn’t so much “what’s happening to the world” as it is “what happens to the nuclear family as the rest of the world allegedly frays somewhere beyond the walls of the family home/bunker?” Oddly enough, Shults’ answer is far darker than that of Lars Von Trier. (Melancholia was an allegory for the effects of depression, and though it literally became a planet that engulfed a whole family — if not the whole world — it also resulted in a surprising portrait of unity.)
Travis’ sickness only appears after he’s seen his mother and father kill an entire family — mother, father, and child. For all we know, the disease could itself be a function of metaphor, appearing only after a character has been so fervently immersed in the deterioration of human structures. Indeed, Travis has watched as his parents, his creators and fervent shelterers, have themselves become the nightmares. (Quite literally: throughout the movie, Travis’ more surreal nightmares are shot in a different aspect ratio, and set to a different score. This brutally realistic scene, however, also occurs with these subtle flourishes.) Is his retching after this scene, and the coughing of blood, representative of a revulsion with the very stuff with which we’re made? Sure, he’s pretty undeniably sick, but the sickness is also a literal purging of blood — which metaphorically speaks to a guttural, uncontrollable desire to purge oneself of family, of an inheritance of violence.
Shults has cited Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing as one of the inspirations for It Comes at Night. In that film, about the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, former death squad leader Anwar Congo reenacts the acts of brutality he committed for the camera. Though he begins the film as nonchalantly proud and unrepentant, and though he remains unable to truly verbalize any signs of contending with the hugeness of his monstrous acts, he begins, for about five minutes at the end of the film, to violently dry-heave on the rooftop where he committed his acts. This unfulfillingly purgative gesture is recalled in It Comes at Night, as earlier in the film, Travis thinks he’s sick, tries vomiting blood, but nothing comes out. Finally, at the end, the sickness really is there. What began as a beautiful, understandable human desire on the part of Paul and Sarah to protect their child and family was pushed to the violent extreme of staunch tribalism. It Comes at Night takes the thing society most values — familial love and loyalty — puts it in extreme conditions, and shows how even that, when amplified, can itself be monstrous. Here, the violent mistakes of one’s family become the plague that the body seeks to expunge before it expires.