Brow Beat

The Writer-Director of It Comes at Night on What to Make of the Movie’s Ambiguous Ending

A scene from It Comes at Night
What should we make of the final shot? Did Travis really get sick? And what really happened to Stanley, the family dog?


Trey Edward Shults’ post-apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night seems designed to start conversations about man’s essential nature, the limits of tribalism, and the relative merits of becoming a doomsday prepper. For a considered and adult discussion of the movie, please read Dana Stevens’ review.

We are here to have the other conversation. What the hell actually happens in this movie? Filmgoers are likely to leave with completely different interpretations of the disturbing final sequence and the many other ambiguous scenes that come before. At 28, writer-director Shults has made a staggeringly well-crafted movie that is also structured to leave open many questions about its plot. He agreed, with good humor, to talk over some of our theories, spoilers and all.

Let’s start with the ending. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) are sitting at the table, spattered in blood. Do you think you have a sense of who is alive and who is dead in that final shot?

Very much so, yes.

Should I know?

I think it’s really subjective to different people—obviously stuff is left open for a reason. To me, it’s pretty clear.

Go on.

I will say—what should I say? I think it’s clear, and I think it speaks to Travis’ journey.

Interesting … There’s the question of whether Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is sick, which is complicated by the dream sequences. To me, it looked like Travis getting sick at the end was just a nightmare. So perhaps Paul and Sarah at the end were just in shock about killing Will (Christopher Abbott) and Kim (Riley Keough). But I could also see the argument that the nightmare had become literal at that point—perhaps Travis was sick, and perhaps they’d done something about it quickly, as they seem to do.

I’ll say this. I think I’m doing less to mess with you than you think, and I’m not trying to mess with you, and it’s not that nutty. If you listen to the words that she says to her son, you think about those words at the beginning of the film, you think about the way Travis looks in bed and then the way Travis looks in that hallway and what that hallway means and what going through that door means, I think it’s all pretty clear. It breaks my heart a bit.

I could go on. It depends if you want me to go in more, but …

Well, let’s say this: It’s clear the ambiguity is there for a reason. This is all about interpretation. Your opinion about what happens doesn’t matter any more than mine. I forbid anyone from turning this into a Reddit conspiracy thread. That said …

Sure, sure, sure, sure. I’ve never talked about the ending. Well, not like this.

I did hear that the original ending was longer and more explicit.

Yes. So there’s a whole other version of the ending that I have. It’s a final nightmare, basically, and these nightmares throughout are supposed to put you closer to what is going on inside Travis’ head and what he’s battling in his subconscious and get you closer to him, beyond just being scary or whatever. And there was a final one that was basically Travis’ reality has become a nightmare, so it’s all just a nightmare, and it was like a sort of dying fever dream where he confronts everything and it’s like his personal hell. And his hell is his house and his parents and facing what they’ve done.

Intellectually, it made a lot of sense, but in practice it was just pummeling and pummeling, and people weren’t with it emotionally. I found less is more, and I found a way to get across what I wanted to get across without beating people into submission.

Did you have any rules that you used with Travis’ dreams so that they were consistent throughout?

I wanted you to be like, “Oh, nightmares!” but sort of be enveloped into them and fall into them like Travis would, and experience them like him. And we do little techniques to get that across. Our film grammar and camera stuff doesn’t change, but our lenses do—we go to anamorphic lenses, and it’s a subtly different feel. Our aspect ratio shoots into 2.75:1, and it subtly feels different, and the score we have is a subtly different score approach. The sound’s a little off. Just little things to mess with you, until where I think the movie leads to—in the woods, between the families, reality has become a nightmare, and they combine and converge into one, and our music clashes. Our intense-reality sounds and our nightmare sounds become one. We go handheld for the first time, and for the rest of the movie, you stay in that state, and you’re left in that state. Like Travis. You experience it like he does. And that was very intentional.

So Travis’ nightmare does become real, in that view?

I see where things go, and to me, it’s devastating, and it’s terrible, and it’s what the movie’s kind of building to. It’s what it’s about. If the movie’s ultimate thing is about fear of the unknown—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.

Let’s come back to that! I have another theory I’d like to discuss. Is it possible the plague isn’t even real?

Oh! Interesting.

I know there are references to people getting sick in big cities, and obviously the grandfather gets sick, but still: It seems possible Paul is just extremely paranoid.

The disease and stuff, to me, is clear—you see it in the opening frame of the movie. Everything leading up to the opening title card, which you could call the prologue, happens. It’s real. All of this is rooted in something real, and all of these fears are rooted in something real.

To me, there’s just a kind of storytelling that I like, and I like being dropped into the situation with the characters and just getting what we can as they get it and just living with the characters. And things aren’t answered for a reason.

But the ambiguity does inspire cranks like me to ask questions.

I wrote this like two years ago, and I’ve been talking about it so much and thinking and then analyzing my own thing. In The Thing, the effects are amazing, but personally, I care way less about that. The thing I’m obsessed with is what it does to the people. Same with Night of the Living Dead—personally I don’t care that much about the zombies, but I love what it’s doing, that power dynamic inside.

So then I became fascinated by the people, and like what this unknown does to these people. There’s a disease, but there is a question if there’s more than that, right?

Yes! The monster in the woods!

Because certain things happen that aren’t totally explained, and they could be, like what happens to Stanley [the family dog]. Does a monster eat him? It’s possible. Does a guy just shoot them in the woods? It’s possible. There’s any number of possibilities. But the movie is about the fear of the unknown. If you just look throughout the whole, so much of it is rooted in that, from “Who we can trust?” to “What’s actually going on?” to “What even actually happens?” To the point that some people are probably just going to be frustrated, and that’s a bummer.

I hear you. I thought a little about the reaction to The Witch, where audiences are used to these maximalist supernatural thrillers and then they aren’t sure how to process something like this.

I didn’t anticipate that. Because I didn’t approach this like, “This is my horror movie, I’m going to do it!” That’s how I would pitch it, but it was just this story that I needed to tell, and those are just my sensibilities, and that’s the baggage it comes with. But I wouldn’t say I’m a genre head. I love movies. I love any kind of movie, whether that’s a horror movie, or whether that’s a comedy, or whatever. I think with genre movies in particular, people want their stuff explained. Which is not my sensibility.

I think it’s clear enough what the movie sets out to do. You’ll have your defenders.

I hope so. And honestly, I put so much of myself into it. I put my heart and soul into it, and I believe in it, and I hope it just connects with some people, and I hope even the people it doesn’t connect with, I hope it sticks with you and you’re talking about it.

OK, I have a silly complaint.

Sure, sure, sure.

I get the metaphorical purpose of the red door, the separation between the outside world and the family and so on. But why can’t these extremely handy people install a better damn lock on that door? 

[Laughing] Yeah, they should have reinforced it a bit more. Like, why don’t they have several more locks going on it or something? It is—you know this—it’s not literally the door that goes to the outside. It’s like you’ve got to go through that to get in and that’s more enforced and stuff, so there is that.

I guess that’s right. Fine. Now on to the real question: Who opened the door? I suppose it might have been the kid (Griffin Robert Faulkner), hearing Stanley outside.

When Travis finds the kid and takes him back to bed and he’s kind of walking around the house and then he sees the door open, it’s also a lot of our nightmare grammar—it’s like a lot of times you see Travis at night with a lantern, we’re going into nightmares, especially if he’s going near that door. We have a subtle bit of our nightmare texture coming in there for the first time in the film, when it’s typically relegated only for nightmares. We then let it go crazy for the climax, but that is a big first moment playing with that perception of nightmare, what’s real or not. Especially for Travis, who, I think is sort of an insomniac. And he could be unreliable, I don’t know.

How about that very tense scene where Paul seems to catch Will in a lie about his brother? I wasn’t sure if Paul was being crazy or Will was up to something.

I don’t think Paul’s crazy. I don’t think anyone in the movie is crazy.

OK. How about “extreme.”

Totally. Which, arguably, you know, in the circumstances you probably would need to be.

I did get the sense watching the movie that you’d thought about these doomsday scenarios much more than I have.

[Laughing] Definitely, definitely. Well, I had a relative that was a prepper forever, and I was just in that state for a while. So for me, I’m more in line with Travis, and I see the world more like Travis. Preppers are crazy people and they’re kooky, but then once you start hearing that economic collapse is not insane, then you start thinking about what people do when things fall apart, and how primal that gets, and what you need to do to protect that, and that started to fascinate me.

But also, I think that there’s a line. Where it can’t all be rules, and there needs to be a line to retain that humanity, or you go too far, and then what’s the fucking point?

On that note, I’ve already seen arguments that this movie is about the fear of terrorism, or the fear of immigrants. You started filming in August 2016. What was on your mind?

At that time, the idea of Trump being president was still insane, you know what I mean? And things had still been progressively getting worse.

And you were editing the movie on Nov. 8.

Yeah. And it sucks. This movie was really draining to make. It took a lot out of me. And I put a lot of myself into this stuff. But of course, I can’t help but think about the movie in relation to what’s going on. To me, it was just really sad. I thought this movie was more and more timely, and it really bummed me out. The only positive I’ve found in what’s happening lately is I think some great art is going to be made.

Thank you for indulging me. It’s clear this movie is allergic to world-building, but it’s fun to speculate. Still, to me, the reality of a film like this is that people will look for hidden clues. Did you try to protect against that?

I’ll say this: I’m not stupid. The storytelling in the film is very deliberate, and what’s in there is intentional, and what’s not in there is intentional. I didn’t make a movie to frustrate you! I hope you can just be in the movie and let loose, and instead of it being a frustrating thing, it’s an interesting thing. And if you dig the movie, it’s something that you can return to and see new things, or analyze, or whatever you want to do. That’s dope to me. That gets me excited. Look at Room 237it’s fascinating. It’s so cool. I remember the first time seeing that, I get to the end part, and I’m like, “Wait, what?”

This interview has been edited and condensed.