It Comes at Night, 2017.
Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults.
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner, and David Pendleton.
Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, a man has established a tenuous domestic order with his wife and son, but this will soon be put to test when a desperate young family arrives seeking refuge.
Far more interesting than the apocalypse itself is the impact an event of that magnitude can have on the psyche of humanity. Writer and director Trey Edward Shults apparently agrees, as his follow-up to last year’s critically acclaimed debut feature Krisha is a relentlessly morbid study of how human behavior changes for the worst when faced with the sole goal of survival and protecting family above all else. Furthermore, the most horrifying thing in Shults’ sophomore film It Comes at Night isn’t some fantasy monster or whatever virus is infecting the population (only the bare minimum of details are doled out here), but rather the fact that the movie might have had a happier ending if the family at the center of the film decided to make the immoral choice and not provide shelter for innocent stragglers lost in the forest surrounding their isolated abode.
It Comes at Night raises some deeply disturbing questions, demanding viewers put themselves in the shoes of these characters and ask what’s right or wrong. Paul (played by a thick-bearded Joel Edgerton who basically looks like Joel from The Last of Us) is a family man settled into a daily routine that seems to be working for surviving the apocalypse. His family lives in desolation, they have proper supplies, and adhere to strict rules such as no one going outside at night. For clarification, the title of the film is not necessarily literal, as it’s never explained what the virus actually is. To manage, the family put on gas masks whenever they must go outside or find themselves in the company of the infected, but no one is certain if the air is polluted.
Nevertheless, Paul’s system is upended when a man named Will (Christopher Abbott giving a sympathetic and often unreadable performance) breaks into his family’s home under the assumption that it is abandoned. Rather harshly but understandably, Paul’s instinct is to beat the shit out of him and tie him to a tree in the woods as he seeks answers, where he learns that Will is trying to get his family somewhere safe and that they have fresh chickens and other animals to barter in return for sanctuary. As I just mentioned, Christopher Abbott is unreadable in the role (you desperately want to give him the benefit of the doubt even though the situation could easily be a set-up for something much worse), but the harrowing pleasure of It Comes at Night comes from the general unpredictability of the narrative and sticking it out through slow burning but terrorizing dread that comes to one hell of a head. There wouldn’t be a movie if conflict never arose, so it’s no spoiler that things do go south, but the journey there is akin to living a nightmare filled with the unshakable feeling of something going terribly wrong.
Speaking of nightmares, the horror portion of It Comes at Night is primarily featured with dream sequences from Paul’s 17-year-old son Travis who envisions his darkest fears and strongest desires. Even more intriguing is that he provides the strongest emotional connection out of any of the characters (outside of the wives to both families played by Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough respectively), everyone is rather developed), crucially in part to an outstanding and revelatory performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. that oozes torment and pain. Due to his young age and softer personality, Travis just doesn’t seem equipped to deal with surviving the apocalypse from both a mental and physical standpoint; his only friend in the world is a dog, he is clearly sexually repressed (one of his dreams is a nightmarish take on an intimate encounter with Will’s wife, which then prompts him into account awkwardly flirting with her in the middle of the night), he’s in traumatic shock from losing his grandfather during the movie’s powerful opening, and generally just appears depressed to the point where he is about to break out into tears at any second. It truly is a phenomenal psychological turn, especially when contrasted to the hardened adults.
Getting back to the horror elements, It Comes at Night is a dark film utilizing natural lighting to heighten the atmosphere. The overgrown bright green grass fused to different walls and surfaces also make for a nice contrast to the pitch black darkness present inside the home, which oddly enough is where the families are most safe. Shults also expertly plays with some cinematic techniques such as slyly changing aspect ratios throughout the film (especially during the film’s nightmare sequences), and knows how to make the most of his sound design. Every shot fired feels important and carries weight.
Filmmaking excellence aside, It Comes at Night is a character driven horror drama that leaves you thinking about just that. It subverts just about every cliché you can think of as far as apocalyptic scenarios go, ignoring monsters and demons entirely to focus on the human mind, making bold statements regarding fear, paranoia, love, and family. As mentioned, the most horrifying take away is how one act of kindness in a living hell can trigger a downfall.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★