If, as Ben Child’s tentative piece for the Guardian argues, there is such a thing as the auteur producer, then the names Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges (the three men behind the production company “A24”) firmly deserve to be on the list of pioneers of the movement, along with Marvel’s Kevin Fiege, and Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy. This was bought home to me during a screening I attended of the hotly tipped, and widely praised, horror film “It Comes At Night”, directed by Trey Edward Shults, a young director with a limited back catalogue.
The film was very confidently directed, stirring up an unnerving maelstrom of taut mis-en-scene, making superb use of natural lighting, limited locations, and a game cast featuring Joel Edgerton, of all people, who after 2015’s similarly effective “The Gift”, is on his way to becoming this decade’s Viggo Mortensen- that is, someone whose presence is an indicator of relative quality in a film.
The film was a reworking of a number of different tropes (apocalypse movie, coming-of-age-as-horror-movie, and people-not-trusting-each-other-in-close-environments-movie), that never felt like a pastiche or a composite, and it legitimately breathed new life into genres previously considered a bit tired, or stale. The filmmaking was controlled, tight, and yet moved forward with a certain surefootedness. Every now and again there was a little flourish in the loci of movement from one frame to the next, or a little cinematographic tic, giving away a confidence befitting a third or fourth feature, as opposed to a second one.
And yet; all I have said above, for better or for worse, could equally apply to the other A24 distributed horror film that came out two years ago- “The Witch”, directed by Robert Eggers (another young director with a limited back catalogue). There was another film reworking tired foundations (demonic possession, witches) into something entirely new. It was a good, effective, stilling and chilling horror film with a handful of shots that have stayed with me since I saw it. It was short on scares proper (that is, a loud noise and a brief glimpse of something horrifying), and long on a precise, unwavering tone. Just like “It Comes At Night”.
As someone thinking critically about film, this puts me in a little bit of a bind. How can I criticise a film for being fundamentally good? How can I nitpick when a film has, by my own admission, done something well?
This points to a certain house style of A24 that is, strangely, reflected in the Marvel films. A24 films tend to have limited casts with one or two up and coming actors, big themes, and a tendency to pick up awards buzz. I’m thinking here of “Ex Machina”, with Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander; “Room”, with Brie Larson; “Green Room” with Anton Yelchin. All, in their turn, excellent films. And yet placed together in that way, it’s hard not to see similarities that transcend their vastly different genre trappings.
The Marvel films, in their turn, all feature a big name, a handful of character actors, a dash of studio-enforced “chemistry”, a big third act kill-em-up, and a ramifications that flow outwards through the later films (Matt Zoller Seitz got it so, so right when he likened them to a “giant screen TV series“).
Yet, those Marvel films are incredibly popular with young and old, and seemingly unsinkable as entertainment property, getting progressively “weirder” (within a strictly mandated, studio-friendly remit) and still drawing in masses of money. They are critic-proof, and as much as I take issue with the films themselves, I am very happy that there is something getting people into cinema seats.
I am left wondering, then, if A24 are simply Marvel for people who’ve heard of Jean Luc Godard. Where Marvel is critic-proof, A24 films come with a high probability of a positive Rotten Tomatoes rating, and are almost guaranteed a strong word-of-mouth. The case is there with “Moonlight”, the little film that could, a premise that sounds like box-office poison (and a young gay black man grows up), that became a breakout hit, a critical darling, and ended up netting Best Picture against La La Land, a film almost unanimously loved.
It was also an early feature from a young, up-and-coming director.
Is there a point to this? I don’t think so. Only an absolute contrarian would argue against the quality of A24’s output, and whilst there’s scope for an Adorno/Horkheimer-ian analysis of socio-economic and class status being reflected through cultural tastes here (I am an educated, middle class white guy with a fondness for the French New Wave and writing largely pointless thinkpieces about movie studios), now is not the time.
What I will say is that “It Comes At Night”, as excellent as it is, was the first time I began to really discern a structure to A24’s moviemaking. I don’t doubt that people more clued-in than me have noticed it before now. The worst thing I could say is that it marks A24 as somehow safe in their generally experimental oeuvre (if that is even at all possible). But the fact that a production company can have an oeuvre at all is something that bears thinking about. It begs the question of whether cinema is returning to the 1930’s style of studio-led filmmaking, but with a whole seventy years of auteur theory informing it.
Despite my wary tone, rest assured; this is a supremely exciting time.