It Comes At Night, 2017.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults.
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbot, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
A small family – father, mother and teenage son – live in what appears to be an abandoned house. The windows are boarded up and, from the outside, there’s little sign of life. Then a young man breaks into their home and brings his family with him – a wife and little boy. But something is wrong with the world outside, the two families don’t trust each other and the horrors surrounding the house draw ever closer.
So what comes at night? And what does it do? Trey Edward Shults’ second feature (his first was Krisha in 2015) poses lots of questions from the outset and answers but a few – just enough to keep us interested, nay absorbed and fascinated, but to hold on to that all-important element of mystery.
The first few moments pose almost enough questions to last the entire film. An old man, breathes heavily because he’s suffering from some illness, the circular marks on his skin being the tell-tale sign. He’s kept in a room surrounded by plastic sheeting, anybody that talks to him wears a gas mask. But where did his illness come from and how did he get what is something clearly highly contagious? There’s a clue: Bruegel style paintings depicting the plague, although the word is never used.
So we’re left to fill in the gaps ourselves. Something has clearly gone badly wrong with the outside world and Paul (Joel Edgerton) is trying to protect his family by keeping them shut in the house, boiling the water, wearing gas masks and gloves whenever he deems it necessary and isolating them from whatever’s in the forest. But what’s out there, or anywhere else, is never shown. There’s a single, fleeting glimpse of one other person, who Paul shoots when his vehicle is under attack. What kills Stanley, Travis’s (Kelvin Harrison Junior) beloved dog? It goes running off into the forest after something, there’s strange sounds – and then it stops barking. Somehow it’s returned to the house, to that room where we saw the elderly man at the start. How’s that?
The film reeks of never-ending, suffocating paranoia. Do we trust Will (Christopher Abbott), the interloper? Does Paul trust him? Is Will responsible for what happens to Stanley? Parts of his story just don’t make sense: he’s plausible and very believable, but Paul’s suspicions never go away and he keeps reminding Travis never to trust anybody but family. And that suspicion spills over into the audience. After all, things only start to go wrong when he and his family turn up. Our suspicions are inevitably raised, but is there any proof that there’s something wrong with him.
So far, so psychological. But there is a side to this that is pure horror. Some familiar tropes, like the long, dimly lit corridor, with its low ceiling. Or the red door, which is always locked. Where the real horror lives, however, is in Travis’s mind. His dreams are genuinely frightening nightmares and sometimes it’s difficult to see where reality ends and his dreams begin. It makes for some jump out of your skin moments, especially when the tension is stretched perilously close to its limit.
There’s an even more personal side to the story, one concerning Paul, a former history teacher – “if you want to know about the Roman Empire, I’m your man!” – who’s been forced into becoming a leader, a survivalist and thrown on his own ingenuity and resilience. And he has plenty of that. But what he discovers is that protecting his family comes at a price – and it’s a high one. The fact that the circumstances are horrific is almost incidental. As Paul, Joel Edgerton shows yet again that he’s one of the most consistently watchable actors around, giving us a man with a clear moral compass, but now forced to make his own rules. Ones that warp that compass. Christopher Abbott is a worthy adversary as Will, giving us just enough ambiguity not to wholly trust him. We’re in the same boat as Paul.
It Comes At Night grabs you from start to finish and its ending is truly devastating. As for the “it” in the title that comes at night ….. see the film and decide for yourself what it is.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★