TO THE NIGHT is a character study of a man tortured by mental illness and the death of his parents. Directed by Peter Brunner and starring Caleb Landry Jones, Elénore Hendricks, Abbey Lee, Jana McKinnon, and Christos Haas, the film debuted at What the Fest?! on March 23.
The movie follows Norman, who struggles to maintain his relationships with his girlfriend Penelope and their 8-month-old son, frequently evading fatherly duties to hang out with his eccentric friends. He’s an experimental sculpture artist; much of his art is inspired by the tragic death of his parents during his childhood. Norman uses hard drugs frequently, swallowing pills dry and trying to score ketamine.
Norman is frequently violent and animalistic, perpetually moments away from a meltdown. It’s fascinating to watch the duality of his crippling psychotic episodes and his struggle to connect with his family and friends. Those caught up in the whirlwind around him are stuck in a constant cycle of arguing, talking Norman down from his psychoses, and making amends. In the second scene of the film, Norman bluntly foreshadows this, saying “I destroy everything I love.”
In one scene, Norman aims his car at his parents’ home and does an intense burnout, with the implication that at any moment he could take his foot off the brake and end it all. The movie builds tension in a similar way—Norman gets worked up more and more until he explodes, with the emotional shrapnel hitting whoever is closest. He admits to Penelope that despite his best efforts to maintain mental stability, “I can’t get used to the way I’m supposed to be.”
As much as Norman’s behaviors should have everyone running in the opposite direction, he is a study in how we try to care for loved ones with dangerous mental health problems. He is selfish, cruel, abusive, and destructive, but he’s also a nuanced person who is cared about by his friends and family, and that creates an authenticity that binds the story together.
Technically, the film is professional and aesthetically pleasing. Fire colored lighting, specifically red hues, are prominent throughout. The sets are stripped down and full of Norman’s art, creating a canvas for the unrestrained displays of emotion. The shot scale and composition is varied, but extreme close-ups are used so often that it verges on emotional manipulation.
The film is mostly well-acted, with an exceptional performance by Caleb Landry Jones. Overall, TO THE NIGHT is a portrait of the agony of mental illness, experienced not only by Norman but by everyone around him. Resisting the opportunity to be exploitative, TO THE NIGHT paints a harrowing portrait of raw, realistic human pain.