It Comes At Night is an intense, effective, original take on the post-apocalyptic genre that makes your think about your own mortality…and morality
I recently had the pleasure of screening the new film from award-winning Texas filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, the follow-up to his stunning debut Krisha. Thanks to A24, Fons PR, and Alamo Drafthouse, I joined fellow critics for a late night bus road into the woods of Austin, Texas, to watch the chilling psychological horror thriller It Comes At Night. Both the creepy setting and the powerful insight into the film from Shults himself — who wrote the film during a dark and deeply introspective period following the death of his father — added to the impact of watching a movie almost guaranteed to top the “Best of 2017” list of most critics and horror fans.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic disaster movies, where all hell breaks loose amidst streets riddled with chaos and carnage. Zombies gnawing on faces and monsters ravaging cities make for exceptional popcorn fare. But I’m never truly scared — until that rare film comes along that reminds me what’s really at stake when the world falls apart.
It Comes At Night is terrifying, but not in the way you might be expecting…or even hoping for.
IMAGINE THE END OF THE WORLD — NOW IMAGINE SOMETHING WORSE
The fear you experience watching It Comes At Night comes from real human drama, not from the creatures that go bump in the night. This is about a family desperately trying to survive the unthinkable, never feeling truly safe or knowing who (if anyone) to trust. It’s about a father’s fight to protect his family at all costs, even when he knows it’s likely a losing battle. It’s about what we’re willing to give up just to stay alive.
The movie begins in startling fashion. We’re introduced to a family of three — Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) living an isolated existence, in a large country home nestled quietly in the woods. We meet the family as they are coping with the painful loss of Sarah’s father Bud, who appears to have wasted away due to a terrible disease. As he struggles to take his last breath, he’s unceremoniously hauled out into the woods by Paul and Travis, wearing gas masks. There he is shot, and his body is burned.
And we soon realize we’ve landed in the middle of an apocalypse.
However, the film does not concern itself with the devastation of the outside world. We get only small glimpses of whatever horrors lie just beyond these peaceful woods. Instead, the threat is felt almost entirely from within as we follow the family’s fight to maintain some sense of normalcy amidst the chaos — a calm maintained by following a rigid set of rules and routine that feel more like surviving than living.
That false sense of calm is challenged when a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the family’s home at night while scavenging for food and supplies. Paul’s violent reaction to the intruder makes us realize just how precarious the family’s existence really is.
Paul soon learns that Will also has a wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and a very young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) he’s trying to protect. He eventually decides to share his home with the other family — more out of a sense of self-preservation than goodwill towards his fellow man. As the strangers begin to bond, the family’s home seems at once more alive — and yet more threatening than ever.
The terror of this film comes from the masterful way Shults builds and maintains tension, while playing with audience expectations. This film is never quite you think it’s going to be, and it ends up being so much more than you expected.
It’s a post-apocalyptic nightmare that gets to the heart of our deepest fears — reminding us of the frailty of our comfortable lives and forcing us to consider how far we’d go to survive…and how much of our humanity we would be willing to sacrifice.
Kelvin Harris, Jr. is remarkable as Travis, the teenaged son forced to deal with the normal trauma and anxiety associated with coming of age while trying to survive the horrors of a world on the brink of extinction. The story is told primarily from his perspective, as he struggles to cope with mounting uncertainty and dread — both from within and outside of his isolated home. Haunted by chilling nightmares and tortured by complex and conflicting emotions, the young actor is a brilliant proxy for the audience’s immersion in this hellish reality.
In addition to Harris, Jr.’s star-turning performance, the entire ensemble cast is outstanding, bringing believability and relatability to Shults’ well-written, complex and interesting characters. Not surprisingly, Joel Edgerton (who serves as the film’s executive producer) shines as the terse and protective father faced with unimaginable choices. While his performance remains appropriately understated and stoic throughout, he’s able to effectively communicate a wide range of shifting emotions.
For a film that rarely expands beyond the claustrophobic confines of the cabin, it looks and sounds incredible. Beautifully shot with a strong cinematic flair and incredibly clever and effective use of lighting, Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels create a perfectly moody and oppressive atmosphere. Coupled with Brian McOmber’s powerful and ominous score, the film grips you by the throat from the opening frame and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll.
As with one of my favorite recent films, The Witch, there are those who will be turned off by the film’s non-traditional approach to horror. With a stripped-down narrative and beautifully restrained script, Shults focuses on building suspense slowly and taking time to fully develop meaningful characters. While heavy on dread and atmosphere, It Comes At Night is light on jump scares and traditional horror-movie staples.
Like most truly exceptional films, ‘It Comes At Night’ asks more questions than it answers. There are questions about major plot points that Shults intentionally leaves unanswered, preferring to let the viewer draw his or her own conclusions. Then there are those uncomfortable moral questions the film forces the viewer to ask himself, like “What does it mean to be a good person? And how does that definition change when society crumbles and survival becomes the prime objective?”
Finally, there’s the question of the title, another one the filmmaker artfully dodged during the post-screening Q&A I attended. What exactly is the “It” referenced in the title? That’s left to interpretation. The film explores many diverse, yet tightly woven threads — giving audiences a lot of meat to chew on and digest.
It’s an incredibly satisfying meal, in spite of (or maybe, in many ways, because of) the purposeful ambiguity.
GO SEE THIS FILM
It Comes At Night hits theaters on June 9th, and it’s one I can’t recommend highly enough — especially for fans of intelligent, thought-provoking, character-driven horror. Shults proves he’s a true auteur, in total command of his craft and on the cusp of a very exciting and promising filmmaking career.