It Comes at Night envelops you in near-constant dread
Labored breathing, muffled slightly through a gas mask. An ominous red door at the end of a long, wood-paneled hallway. A sudden, urgent crash coming from a closed entryway. The woods, bathed in darkness — illuminated by a single beam from a flashlight strapped to the end of a rifle.
These are the visuals and sounds that stick to you like tree sap after you watch the rigorous cabin-in-the-woods psychological thriller It Comes at Night, an impressive little suspense movie being marketed as a horror film with an apocalyptic worldview. But more than a big-picture, end-of-the-world drama, it succeeds as a grave — and highly confined — journey through desperate emotional states.
It’s a fitting sophomore effort from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, whose devastating debut feature, Krisha, chronicled one very stressful day in the life of a recovering addict and grandmother visiting her estranged family. That movie plumbed the depths of crippling self-doubt and paranoia, and It Comes At Night amplifies those feelings by making an isolated teenager central to its story. The coming-of-age trappings are here — an incipient mistrust of parents, the realization of a complicated bigger world, a sexual awakening — only the young person is himself trapped, and we gauge his growing pains through the lens of life-or-death tragedy.
Shults has a keen eye for vulnerability, and there’s plenty of that on display from 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who is learning to face an awful new reality. An unnamed plague has felled everything that he and his family know outside, so they’ve made their remote home, tucked away in the woods, a bunker. His mother (Carmen Ejogo) and father (Joel Edgerton) have developed rules for survival, and this code is strict enough to call for wheeling an infected relative into the woods and shooting him when he’s too sick to speak. We watch Travis watch his grandfather’s body burn, and the finality sinks in.
And these are just the movie’s opening moments, signaling that the next 90 minutes will envelop you in nearly constant dread.
It Comes At Night, like Krisha before it, keeps itself oriented in the point of view of its protagonist. Shults asks the audience early on to set aside questions about the plague. This works in part because the writer-director has an uncanny ability to ground trauma in personal detail. Night doesn’t play cheap jump-scare games. It’s not a who’s-going-to-die-next flick.
A glimmer of hope appears when Travis and his dad discover another family trying to survive under similar circumstances and they decide to join forces. The start of this union brings a welcome respite from the suffocating tone that precedes it. But even as a montage of the two families working together to build some kind of future warms the heart, we sense that more misery is right around the corner.
Meanwhile, the story stays true to Travis’ inner life — especially his subconscious, which we glimpse as the boy wakes from vivid nightmares, only to re-enter an equally cruel and visceral reality. What comes at night for Travis isn’t out there. It’s inside.
If that sounds obvious, it is. Call it a limitation of his script or a carefully constructed atmosphere, but Shults’ focus on achieving a kind of claustrophobic gravity — and his undeniable success at sustaining it — renders his larger metaphor painfully thin. The moment when the two families put a wall between them involves a literal boundary; with it comes our certainty that things are truly going to hell. But what then?
In a film this carefully conceived, the fact that both families are multi-ethnic can’t be a coincidence. So perhaps Shults’ picture arrives at an ideal moment, one in which we’re cynical enough to accept that, when human frailty comes up against a species-thinning cataclysm, everyone’s bound to be equally screwed. Whether that matchup entertains depends upon how you respond to a measured, muscular display of sound design and convincing mise en scène. It Comes at Night very effectively shows us a few tendencies that are already threatening our survival.