The Unbearable Solitude of the Lone Ghost in ‘It Comes At Night’

It Comes At Night begins with the mercy killing and funeral of a father and grandfather, lost to a flesh-devouring contagion. The film follows the aftermath of his death and is structured around the horror of a doomsday scenario at the center of which is a family taking refuge in a large house in the middle of the woods. With a fixed daily routine, avoidance of the night, and a rule of always going out in groups of at least two, the family of three protects itself against potentially dangerous fellow survivors and ubiquitous infection. Its true horror, however, is slowly built on the painful solitude of a young man: Travis, the lone son, played gently but touchingly by Kevin Harrison Jr.

The overall house dynamic changes with the arrival of a seemingly trustworthy younger couple and their toddler son Andrew, likely drawn to the house by the smoke of the dead man’s body, who is burned and buried to avoid contamination. What remains, however, and becomes even more palpable is the fact that Travis, almost a legal adult, is without a partner of his own. He is often alone, unable to sleep, or having nightmares of his dead grandfather and fantasies of the new young woman in his home. His constant isolation and nightly walks through the house perpetually threaten to upend the security of the strict rules of keeping to daylight and company.

The most terrifying, affecting aspect of this well-worn post-apocalyptic backdrop is not the violent chaos it predictably breeds in the competing alpha males of the families but rather the overwhelming loneliness it instills in this young man. Travis is surrounded by couples and a little boy who resembles what he once was: cared for and nestled within a loving family dynamic.

Travis behaves as a ghost, sneaking into the attic to listen in on (and sometimes laugh along with) the conversations (and sexual exchanges) taking place in private away from him. He also likes to perch himself by the attic window and look out into the woods, waiting and watching. Meanwhile director Trey Edward Shults often aligns his camera with Travis’s spectral perspective: long, measured shots drifting through the hallways, peering into the slightly open doors of his parents’ and new neighbors’ bedrooms. Some of these are overtly from his point of view while others have ambiguous, seemingly supernatural origins. The interplay between his experience and that of an unknown, invisible essence stresses his eerie presence in the house. While Travis is a voyeur, he is not a wicked one; he maintains an innocent and caring demeanor that makes him our only hero, with whom we endure the agonizing threat of looming death in this horror setting.

Without a friend or partner, he relies on the companionship of his dog, Stanley, and of his dead grandfather, who haunts him in his dreams. His family’s reluctance to fully trust the strangers prevents him from truly connecting with them. When Stanley goes missing, he is pulled further into the land of the dead, made even more of a phantom lurking within the family home.

In one devastating sequence, Travis uses a lamp to light his way through the darkness of the house at night, following the sounds of whimpering that at first appear to belong to his missing dog. He then finds Andrew curled up alone in his grandfather’s room. Travis closely identifies with all three: Stanley, his grandfather, and Andrew, who perhaps represents the living, but for him nostalgic, intimacy of a loving family. Returning Andrew to his parents’ bedroom, the camera dwells on Travis leering over the family of three as the little one climbs between his sleeping parents and is soon nuzzled by his mother.

Travis sleeps alone in a twin bed next to an empty bed—a constant visual reminder of his lonely removal from others. Perhaps his solitude was once abated by the presence of his grandfather. What the film traces, from its start to end, is how Travis copes with being just one, not only separated off from the rest of a presumably instinct population but divided from the intimacies that inhabit his own home. The death of Stanley is the last straw. It breaks him. Hanging on by a fragile thread to those around him and the tenuous stability they attempt to maintain with rifle in hand, he lets himself go into that good night. The last act then plays out as foreshadowed.

The ending is severe but foretold. With tensions and distrust only slightly curtailed by light humor and conversation, the first signs of doubt and uncertainty inevitably drive the two families to take to their own corners and draw impossible battle lines. Travis, apart as always, can only succumb to the ghost that has been following and possessing him. He joins his grandfather and dog. His parents will surely soon follow, one by one.

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