In “By Night’s End,” co-writer and director Walker Whited presents a couple with a lot of baggage. Heather (Michelle Rose) and Mark (Kurt Yue) have recently moved to a small suburban bungalow, grieving after the death of their daughter Lilly. They are struggling financially, Mark being unemployed while Heather is concerned over the possible misdeeds of her family’s company. Furthermore, former sergeant Heather suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder following her tour in Iraq, and her unwillingness to speak about this is a prominent elephant in the room. It is hinted that she may have a drinking problem, but pleasingly this is not overstated. It’s also pleasing that they are an interracial couple, and this is never commented on, because why should it be?
Much of the film is a two-hander between Mark and Heather, and they are a good pair to spend time with. The script as well as the largely subdued performances of the leads deftly balances the different factors that play into the drama. There is a logic that the events of a film’s narrative cover the most significant events in the characters’ lives, which makes it somewhat surprising to see characters who are not defined by one key event. Rather, Mark and Heather have a lot to deal with, and it is to the film’s credit that we see them work through these various issues – trauma, guilt, finance, greed, fear – both individually and together. And while their respective issues are certainly significant, a more pressing problem quite literally comes to their door.
This pressing problem is largely represented by Moody (Michael Aaron Milligan), a black hat-wearing cocky gunman who knows a lot about the central couple, but not the exact whereabouts of a valuable item hidden within their house. This McGuffin propels the action, as first Parker (Carlos Aviles), then Moody and others come to search for it, placing Heather and Mark in increasing danger. Heather’s military background provides the resources for our heroes to fight back against their assailants, and much of the film’s enjoyment derives from the close quarters of the house being turned into a battleground (think domestic “Die Hard” and you’re on the right track).
Major credit in this respect is due to production designer Ariel R. Kaplan, who successfully constructs a living room, kitchen, hallway, bedroom and two bathrooms, as well as a subterranean crawl space and an attic, as a series of increasingly threatening spaces. Within these spaces, Whited uses long tracking shots that express the enclosure of the house, both as invaders enter and as our heroes hide and survey the scene. Cinematographer Philip Wages moves from the sodium light of streetlamps to flat internal lighting, expressing the loss of distinction between inner and outer worlds. This is an important theme of the film: what are the benefits of building up walls when all they do is contain you? There are hints toward something beyond the home, suggesting some form of release from these otherwise enclosing walls, but notably these hints feel like a departure from the rest of the film. Better are the moments near the garden where Heather and Mark barely step off their back porch, while the meadow at the rear of their property is so near and yet so far. It is notable that the most open and indeed moving moments between Heather and Mark take place on this porch, as well as in the attic and the hallway, rather than the more obvious space of the bedroom or living room.
Furthermore, the film’s treatment of the domestic space is interesting within wider discourses about the American home. There is an argument that the home is to be defended at all costs, justifying the use of violence to defend it. “By Night’s End” plays with this concept, seeing what could happen in the aftermath of such defence. And what happens when the property of home intersects with other property, as this causes the central conflict in the film? The film’s exploration of property, pasts and even the wish to be happy go far beyond the confines of the house, which increasingly becomes a pressure cooker for these tensions rather than a sanctuary.
In case you’re worried that this all makes “By Night’s End” sound like a tedious chin-stroker, fear not, because within these wider areas for consideration, Whited delivers a cracking thriller of tension, jump scares and well-orchestrated set pieces. The film opens with a harried figure seeking shelter in a continuous take, and as mentioned long tracking shots help to escalate fear as they build towards release. This release does not come, causing the viewer’s knuckles to become a little whiter come. The violence is sporadic but nasty, one moment being the most sudden type of jump scare. As in the far higher budget “Tenet,” the most gripping sequence features hand-to-hand combat, improvised weapons and, once again, the danger of close quarters where walls, sinks and household objects become deadly weapons. There is even a western-style shoot out, the one point where the film shifts into stylised slo-mo action, making the intimate into something epic.
Overall, “By Night’s End” is great fun. It offers tension and action, as well as heroes you can root for, villains to hiss at and wider issues to consider. If one were to sum up this film, it’s a home invasion thriller about marital difficulties. The central couple certainly have some issues to work through, and in some respects manage to do so as a team. “By Night’s End” is enjoyable for anyone, and might be especially fun for couples to watch together!