It Comes At Night
Written and Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo
There’s a lot in common between Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore film It Comes At Night and last year’s The Witch. For one, they’re both A24 releases, but more specifically both films had marketing that promised to scare you shitless when in reality they’re presenting something that would be more welcomed in an art house theater than a multiplex.
The most misleading thing with It Comes At Night is the title itself. Open to some interpretation, the “It” should not be the incentive to see this and will surely disappoint any waiting for “It” to arrive on screen. But expectations aside, It Comes At Night is indeed a truly terrifying film in its simplistic narrative and tightly controlled direction. This takes a global threat and makes it deeply, uncomfortably intimate, showing humankind in its ugliest form.
Understanding a deadly virus has spread all over, we meet Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), fully prepared with guns, gloves, and gas masks. Surrounded by woods, their boarded up house only lights up with slivers of sunlight or an illuminating lantern at night. Their cautious existence is shaken by the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbott) trying to break in to what he assumes is an empty house. He claims his wife and son are waiting for his return and want shelter in exchange for food. Paul reluctantly agrees to open up their home to this desperate family, a decent act with foreboding repercussions.
Much like with his debut feature Krisha, Shults locks his characters in a singular location, forcing tension and discomfort to simmer through paranoid glances, gestures and conversations. He’s more concerned with execution than exposition, but where Krisha was an 83-minute ticking time bomb, It Comes At Night has genuine moments of levity. The two families are capable of sharing meals and playing board games, infusing laughs and heartfelt tenderness.
It’s refreshing to see an end-of-the-world movie where the characters still behave like regular human beings instead of hollow shells of their former selves. Even Paul, who is the closest to being the crazy doomsday preparer, reveals a shade of normalcy. Over a couple glasses of scotch, Paul reveals to Will that he used to be a teacher and it’s believable. These characters are ultimately looking out for their families’ best interests. And it’s this overprotective nature, this refusal to truly lower the guard, where problems arise.
While not completely adhering to horror conventions, Shults does stage things adequately with genuine suspense. The camera lurks around dark corridors of the house, heightened with the chilling score by Brian McOmber, and, much like with the characters, we’re waiting for something to pop out. Even outside in the vacancy of the woods, flashlights will follow anything that goes bump in the night. It’s never clear what, if anything, there is to be afraid of, but that pressing unknown is enough to drive the characters to the point of breaking.
The most horrific imagery comes in the form of Travis’ dreams, including his recently deceased grandfather with big black eyes and blood dripping from his lips. Whether these are dreams or premonitions is a question that carries through and Shults may not have any intention to answer them. Which may be the biggest point of contention in this film. Those looking for some satisfactory crescendo, or even explanation to award their patience through this slow 97 minutes, will undoubtedly be disappointed. Plot is somewhat irrelevant as the main focus is watching these characters slowly tear each other apart. It’s taking the “What would you do in this situation?” to the absolute extreme, giving each and every character enough excuse to point fingers (or in this case guns) and resort to true savagery.
Not unlike the trailers, the film does provide hope that there is more to come. A constant reference to a red door and the disastrous implications of what would happen if it’s opened, whether or not Travis’ dreams are actually happening, and the thing that their dog Stanley barks at in the woods. This teasing becomes a bit tiresome as it’s working more for the characters than the audience. It’s a classic setup with the realization that this fear instilled in us won’t go away even if nothing jumps out at us.
Where the film ends is both abrupt and inevitable. We’re left with the notion that no matter how prepared you are for an apocalyptic scenario, you’re only buying time before something happens. And what that something is, the big question mark, can only be described as the unknown. It’s a primal fear, one that can lead our minds into dark places and force destructive behavior out of us. The situations Shults presents to his characters narrowly lead to aggressive confrontation. Seeing the house turn from protection to prison and the tension mounting until it has nowhere to go is where the horror lies. It’s mean and disturbing, but it’s also excruciatingly real. It’s finding some of this relatable and wondering if you would really act any differently. — James