Thursday, July 13, 2017

It Comes at Night


Trey Edward Shults’s second feature film is an austere and controlled enquiry into what happens when— … No, wait. Almost wandered into spoiler territory there.

The genius of ‘It Comes at Night’ is that is takes a set of immediately recognisable genre tropes and— … Bollocks! Almost did the spoiler thing again.

It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this film in anything but the vaguest terms without inadvertently giving something away. Or rather giving away the one incisive point that every aspect of the film is moving toward, and to which every aesthetic decision by its writer/director contributes.

Subject of its writer/director: Shults is twenty-eight. This is his second film. It’s almost sickeningly well made. He worked on Jeff Nichols’s modern classic ‘Midnight Special’. The star of that film – Joel Edgerton – took the lead role in ‘It Comes at Night’ and lent weight to the project by acting as producer. Trey Edward Shults – I say this again – is twenty-eight. Talented bastard!

The film opens in Romero territory with a small group of people – in this case a family – holed up in a farmhouse in the backwoods. It’s either the present or the very near future. Some form of virus is sweeping America, possibly the world. Patriarch Paul (Edgerton) has adapted to the crisis by the application of strict routine and rigorous self-discipline, the better to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Measures include donning gas masks when venturing outside, obsessive personal hygiene, and maintenance of a small armoury in case of attempted intrusion. One such intrusion is by Will (Christopher Abbott), who mistakenly believes that the house is abandoned. Swiftly disarmed by Paul, Will tells him that his family are holed up at a residence some miles away and while they have sufficient food they are running low on water. His incursion was to scavenge for same. Paul and Sarah discuss the situation, the latter being of the opinion that moving Will and his family and whatever supplies they have into their house offers strength in numbers against possible other intrusions. Against his better judgement, Paul accompanies Will on a journey through a stretch of woodland that might not be entirely empty of antagonist.

That’s really all I can say. What follows relies on character dynamics and interactions. There’s Paul and Sarah’s interracial marriage – no big deal in the twenty-first century, huh? But the sight of Paul (white, bearded, rifle slung across his shoulder) barking orders at his (black, wary, slightly subservient) wife and son gives the audience something uncomfortable to think about. The contrast between Paul and Will is handled effectively; in a screenplay that doesn’t waste words, every scrap of dialogue between them accumulates meaning. Nuances, pauses, a slip that could be lie, half-truth or simple misunderstanding – these things keep the audience unsure. Where, if anywhere, do your sympathies lie? Then there’s Travis, on the cusp of adulthood, vulnerable to the attentions of another father figure, not to mention— … ah, but I very nearly went waltzing down Spoiler Street again.

‘It Comes at Night’ is cannily scripted and, once you get past a draggy and rather po-faced first 15 minutes, generates slow-burn tension with a single-minded focus. Shults perhaps overuses Travis’s recurring nightmares to generate a horror movie vibe; the “jump” scares he effects by such means are the most generic aspects of the film and not as effective as the genuine moments of horror that are derive from the darker corners of the human psyche. Nor is he quite as acute a chronicler of the way men behave around each other as, say, Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, but that might be down to his comparative youth. Shults has talent to burn two years shy of thirty. There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t, in the coming years, deliver some outright masterpieces.

If ‘It Comes at Night’ doesn’t quite stretch its toe into masterpiece territory, it’s still damn good. Shults is smart enough to take his time and let his characters drive the narrative rather than the other way round (a failing of plenty of filmmakers twice his age). He knows how to stage a scene for maximum squirmy tension, how long to hold a shot and when to cut away. Self-evident stuff, you might think, but done with such intuitive confidence that half an hour into the film I hitched up onto the edge of my seat and, despite all of the bleakness and lack of hope on offer, grinned in anticipation of how it would play out, knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Baby Driver


I went into Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ not knowing what to expect – the trailer couldn’t have been more generic if it had tried – but with the mindset that all it had to do was be a damn good car chase movie. It’s been too long since we’ve had a good car chase movie. (And anyone who’s rehearsing a “but the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise” argument can leave by the garage door: those things are what a Michael Bay movie would be if the Transformers stayed as vehicles; they’re porn with Turtle Wax instead of cum shots.)

‘Baby Driver’ is the opposite of porn: it’s a pure romance. It’s a love letter to cinema. A love letter to music. A love letter to movement – be it a car chase, a foot chase, or some ad hoc dance moves on a city street – and the exuberant energy of things simply being in motion. A love letter to enigmatic loners who don’t say much and the winsome girls who fall for them anyway. A love letter to smart-talking crims and meticulously planned heists. A love letter to abandoned warehouses and underground car parks. A love letter to the city and the freeway.

It’s almost a romantic musical and certainly a love letter to a city, and it does a damn sight better job in both respects than ‘La La Land’.

And at its absolute best – at its purest and most joyously infectious – it’s an abstract work of cinema that meshes kinetics and soundtrack for the sheer love of what it can do with music and motion, iconography and editing. As such, there’s little point in talking about the plot (a wholly derivative affair) or the acting except to note that everyone turns in a performance that is exactly what the film requires to sustain its non-car-chase bits. Kevin Spacey is typically deadpan, John Hamm ought to have a bigger film career, and Eiza González wins the Agitation of the Mind Girls With Guns Award for being a total badass and hot as hell with it.


Where ‘Baby Driver’ finds itself on shakier ground its during the last half hour or so where Wright suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be making a genre film and the tyre-squealing fun gets cudgelled and locked in the trunk and the film goes on a slow plod through the demeaned streets of Cliché Town. Wright clearly wants to have his cake and eat it à la Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’, another film-as-experiment where the genre trappings provide a comfort zone for a mainstream audience; but whereas Wheatley mines a cynical vein of gallows humour that is integral to his film’s aesthetic (there is a streak of cruelty that runs through all his work), Wright never fully convinces when he piles on the macho thrilleramics in the last act. It just comes across as hollow posturing. Likewise, the series of flash-forwards that conclude the protagonist’s story are just plain dull: the moment Ansel Elgort slides from behind the wheel or doesn’t have Lily James’s too-sweet-to-be-true waitress to interact with, he ceases to hold any interest for the viewer.

It’s not a bad enough ending to derail the film entirely (I’m looking at you, ‘The Forest’!), but it certainly undoes some of the good work that’s gone before. In a perfect world, there’s a 90 minute cut of ‘Baby Driver’ with 50% less dialogue, where the cars get star billing and Eiza González firing off two machine pistols fulfils the quota of gunplay. That film would be a pop-art masterpiece.