By Night’s End (2020)

By Night’s End opens with an external wide shot of a suburban, single-storey home at night. A ‘For Sale’ sign in the yard is briefly illuminated in red and blue by a passing patrol car, and then a man approaches from the foreground and enters the house. Shortly afterwards we see him again, half-jogging half-limping away. Clutching his chest, he collapses in a park as two police officers with torches aproach to arrest him. The rest of writer/director Walker Whited’s feature debut takes place two months later, in December, with Heather Barnes (Michelle Rose) and her husband Mark (Kurt Yue) mostly moved in to their new home. Still, that earlier prologue laid out many of what will be the film’s essential ingredients: criminal intruders, a police presence, and that ordinary-looking residence (in fact Whited’s own) to which the film’s events, spread over a single night, will be almost entirely confined.

Mark is struggling to get steady work, and Heather is struggling to keep hers – and their financial woes are compounded by emotional ones, as they continue to mourn the recent death of their young daughter Ellie without yet being able to talk to each other about it. As grief and guilt stalk and haunt them even in their new digs, this evening something else will disrupt their sleep. For Parker (Carlos Aviles), the man who had earlier broken into the empty house, has returned to take what he hid there, and ends up being killed in an armed confrontation with Iraq War veteran Heather. It is a clearcut case of self-defence, but instead of calling the police to the scene immediately, the Barnes decide to pursue Parker’s stash for themselves – but then find their house under siege from an armed gang, led by Moody (Michael Aaron Milligan), who will stop at nothing to get the MacGuffin that his now-dead colleague has secreted somewhere inside.  

The limited location of these living quarters, with their dark crawlspace below and narrow attic above,is kept interesting by a high degree of stylisation. Cinematographer Philip Wages creates an almost giallo-esque ambience for all the cat and mouse, bathing everything in reds and yellows to mimic the Christmas lights that Mark has brought out of storage along with a fake tree from which hang bittersweet reminders of Ellie alongside the usual seasonal hopes for renewal. Meanwhile the storm and rain in which the bolero-wearing Moody waits outside bring a decidedly noir-ish effect, matching the shadowy morality that this couple embraces. Here, as the Barnes work through their problems past and present, everything is dressed in the glossy baubles of genre.

By Night’s End comes with an intense Aristotelian unity of time and place, recalling the claustrophobic beleaguerment of Reese Eveneshen and Gabriel Carrer’s similarly low-budget For The Sake Of Vicious (2020). Yet as husband and wife desperately search room by room for an item whose very identity eludes them, they are also unpacking painful memories which they have so far carefully kept repressed and closeted, so that their fight-or-flight dilemmas, and their recriminatory sense of being compromised, are as much expressions of an internal psychodrama as of the threat coming from outside.

Very much the John McClane figure in this Christmas action movie, Heather may have trouble articulating her feelings, but on this long, dark night of the soul, she is ready to enter battle with the demons of the night, and to defend what is hers at any cost. Consequently, By Night’s End is a peculiarly insulated thriller, where husband and wife, breaking bad against those breaking in, must learn to work as a team in keeping the wolf from the door. Ultimately, this couple may be displaced fugitives from a trauma that will always be on their tail, but at last, at least, they have each other once more.     

strap: In Walker Whited’s action feature debut, a struggling couple must work through grief while under violent siege in their own home

© Anton Bitel