I’m not usually a fan of horror movies. But every once and a while there are films like The Witch that, instead of going for straight-up horror, are just dark and tense through and through — and that I kind of love. The latest is It Comes at Night, and I’ll just point you to my colleague Bryan Bishop’s review, which I think nails the film’s creepy strengths and thematic shortcomings.
What I actually want to talk about very quickly is how It Comes at Night uses multiple aspect ratios to tell its story. To signify dream sequences (well, nightmares), it cuts out to a wider perspective that makes you feel a bit more claustrophobic, since black bars suddenly border the screen. But the film also mixes things up at one point, using those black bars to represent a metaphorical nightmare, too.
Another of my colleagues, Tasha Robinson, asked the director about this, and he basically just said it’s a tonal trick that no one is meant to notice. I think he’s right that most people won’t notice — and it does work how he intended it — but I’m not convinced that changing aspect ratios like that is a great idea; at least not how it’s used here.
There’s something really heavy-handed about literally changing how much the audience is able to see that kind of bothers me. More importantly, changing why the technique is being used (dream vs. not a dream) leaves the film open to some very interesting interpretations, which, from this interview at least, it sounds like the director didn’t intend for. On a film analysis level, I’m torn between finding this fascinating and infuriating. But perhaps unintentionally, it may make the movie even more interesting.