A family of three despairs of what waits beyond the red door, fearing plague and those driven to their most base impulses who will murder for a drink of fresh water. But when gazing into the doorway…the doorway also gazes back. Director/Writer Trey Edward Shults tells a minimalist survival tale mostly set within a boarded-up rural house; a chamber piece of nightmares and secrets.
*HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
The plot is fairly straightforward but Shults doesn’t give us much exposition; we have to piece together the images and fragments of nightmares to come to any satisfactory conclusion.
The film begins with a gruesome sight: a zombie-like man gasping for breath surrounded by people in gas masks. This man is obviously sick and dying. He is lifted into a wheelbarrow and taken out into the woods and shot through the head. His body is burned. We soon learn he was the Patriarch of a small family that now includes 17 year old son Travis and his mother and father. This is a bi-racial family yet the story makes no mention of this fact, it is not a plot device to make some bold statement: refreshingly, it just is. We then settle into the daily routine of survival and grieving without much explanation. However, this triptych is much like the Renaissance lithograph that hangs in the house (Hieronymus Bosch?) that alludes to a world and society decimated by plague. If the painting seems contrived as a way to offer information elliptically then it makes a bit more sense later in the film when Travis’ father explains his pre-apocalypse vocation: History Teacher. The next day a stranger is caught breaking into the house and after a brutal struggle he is knocked unconscious and tied to a tree outside (in case he’s infected). This stranger soon brings his family of three (wife and six year old son) into the fold as the six of them try to survive in their wilderness abode. But this stranger is later caught in a seemingly prosaic half-truth.
Shults’ taught direction is mostly relegated to indoors: both metaphorically and physically. He films in 2:35 with mostly tight middle-shots but I thought this film would have benefitted from the Academy ratio to be more claustrophobic. The tension seems more imagined or paranoid between the families than forthright: this lends a very realistic quality to their dilemma. When your very survival is at stake can you truly trust anyone…even family? But Shults isn’t just interested in the mundane activities of survival; he’s more interested in the psychological toll upon Travis. Shults takes us on a few dream-journeys that belong to Travis’ point-of-view and we soon discover that imagination and reality have some crossover point. Using POV fade-outs from Travis’ perspective, we experience some nightmarish images and possible recollections that haunt his traumatized mind. This would make an excellent double-feature with Michael Haneke’s TIME OF THE WOLF.
The focal point of the story is the red door: it is the only way into or out of the house as all other doors/windows have been boarded over. This door is always locked at night and they never go at after dark. The climax of the film and its violent third act concerns the mystery of the unlocked door after dark and the return of the Travis’ dog. This causes panic in the household as the dog carries the plague. Travis discovered the unlocked door but swears he didn’t open it. Could the six year old have opened it? Is the disease (dis-ease) already in the house? Shults shows this from Travis’ POV but alludes to the explanation a few minutes later. We have already seen into Travis’ nightmares and his nighttime wanderings and his decisions to disobey his father (like leaving the room when they’re supposed to be locked down). It’s peripherally explained that Travis, in a nightmare fugue, left the house at night and went looking for his lost dog. He brought the dog back to the house because there is no other explanation for how it entered the initial threshold. So what does come at night? I believe it’s fairly evident from the depiction of Travis’ traumatized consciousness that it’s the nightmares and sleepwalking that comes at night. And this is the fatal revelation that leads to the final Act.
The third and final Act has the two families split and locked down in their separate bedrooms. It’s already been explained that the plague appears within 24 hours so the tension is cranked up to 11. Travis sneaks out of the room (not following directions) and hears the little boy crying. This leads to a final and brutal confrontation where the other family tries to leave the house but won’t reveal if their child has symptoms of the plague. A shootout ensues and the other family is killed. We suddenly cut to black and see Travis in bed with the plague, death mere hours away. The film ends with his mother and father covered in blood, emptied of all humanity and severely traumatized, starring at one another across the kitchen table.
Travis will die of the plague. But did his parents contract it? If they survive, is life still worth living? They shot and killed an entire family of three (like their own) to survive. Where they morally justified? And was it indeed Travis who brought all of this on unwittingly? None of these questions is answered by the film’s conclusion. We are left like our protagonists in limbo and doubt.
Final Grade: (B+)