In an already banner year for horror It Comes at Night is another ace, an exercise in restraint and mental terror.
“Do you know what people are capable of when they’re desperate?” Paul asks his teenage son, Travis, and it’s not an open-ended, rhetorical question. Paul would certainly know, and Travis has seen the results.
It Comes at Night opens with a goodbye. It’s opening shot ligers on the face of an obviously sick old man, covered in skin lesions and struggling to breathe as the rest of his family offers their tearful goodbyes behind plastic gloves and gas masks. The old man is then wheeled into the woods, shot in the head, and his body burned in a pit. And this is what’s done in dignity for loved ones. In a theme that the film will circle back to multiple times, this is just the way the world is now, and this is what a family will do when they’re desperate.
The aforementioned family is Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis, (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), survivors of an unnamed plague who have barricaded themselves in a fortified woodland cabin. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults offers almost no explanation for the world’s current state or even glimpses of it beyond the woods surrounding the cabin. The only hints are thin descriptions of sickness in the cities and warnings about sick outsiders with black eyes.
Paul the patriarch runs his house with a tight set of rules. All of the doors are nailed up except for a pair of exits at the back of the house, one door leading into a sort of airlock room, and then another leading to the outside world. Anyone venturing outside must be in group. Any encounters with an unknown specimen must be done behind a gasmask and gloves. No one goes out at night. It’s not that Paul is an overbearing control freak — in Joel Edgerton’s capable, understated hands, he’s an everyman bent on keeping his family safe against the unknown, and that unknown arrives one night in the form of something kicking at their innermost locked door.
Edgerton is an actor’s actor who should have been famous years ago. He continues to pile up brilliant understated performances in films like Midnight Special, The Gift, and Loving, but his attempted jumps to superstardom keep coming in films that miss the mark (Black Mass, Exodus: Gods and Kings). His work in It Comes at Night won’t win him any awards, but a lesser actor’s attempts to turn the role into a standout performance would have crashed the film. It’s his honest straightforwardness that allows the character to work in the film’s larger examination of archetypical figures.
Paul and his family soon make room for Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). More people at the cabin means a more capable defense, and Will’s family brings along a welcome trailer of goats and chickens, but it also means more people to care for, and differences of opinion.
It Comes at Night has been largely mis-sold in an effort to get people in the theater. Is it horror? Surely, but the advertisements focusing on a few shock images imply that an infected horde waits just over the next hill, waiting to charge the cabin in the film’s third act, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Shults is far more interested in exploring the psychological horrors within as Paul and Will’s family force themselves into uncomfortable close quarters, isolating themselves from the outside world. It may be a disappointment for filmgoers hoping to see a film about the zombie apocalypse, but It Comes at Night is much more about cabin fever.
That is not a slight. While Shults’ refusal to reveal the outside world may be a liability for some viewers, the film’s sparse style is an overwhelming feast for interpretation. His thinly sketched characters are open archetypes ripe for analysis, all seen through the teenaged Travis’ eyes. There’s the power play between the two patriarchs, exploration of racial tension (both Sarah and Travis are black), and the sexual exploration that arises for Travis when Kim suddenly joins his home. The young Kelvin Harrison Jr. is up to the task. Apply pressure and time, and then bring to a boil.
Aiding Shults is cinematographer Drew Daniels, whose suffocating camera work raises the tension. The film features nary a jump scare, preferring long shots that force the viewer to confront their mental fright without quick release. Of particular note is an early Steadicam creep down the cabin’s long hallway, inching ever closer to the rattling door at the end. Daniels lights his night scenes with the harsh, unnatural glow of electric lanterns which dissolves into inky blackness, unable to pierce the darkness only a dozen feet from the camera. Each step forward on the camera’s long crawl is a step closer to the revelation at the end of the hallway, but it could also be a step closer to unveiling something terrifying out of the darkness. It’s a masterpiece of mood building, with ample credit to Daniels, the restraint of co-editors Shults and Matthew Hannam, and Brian McOmber’s buzzing score. You’ll have to keep track of the film’s changing aspect ratios to work out what is real and what are (possibly) Travis’ continuing nightmares.
The outdoors offers little relief, as the grey daylight fights a losing battle to nights that seem to stretch for hours beyond end. When Stanley the family dog unexpectedly barks off into the distance, the camera lingers on the direction of his snarls, inviting the viewer to strain their eyes looking for something (anything!) to explain his actions and break the tension. Shults unabashedly cribs his methods from the cinema of the past, knowing that what’s left unseen can be just as terrifying as any CGI or gory makeup creation. It’s psychological torture.
It Comes at Night oddly reminded me of The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’ black comedy about the societal pressure for romantic relations. Their content is quite different, but the films share an eye for investigating the contrast of a “safe” urban environment built around strict rules and mores with the dangers of the wild unknown that requires a rifle to even step into. The muted color palates only aid the comparison.
Shults keeps the film’s reveals close to the vest all the way to the end, maintaining many of them all the way past it. Shults isn’t even keen to answer the question begged by the film’s title. That’s yet one more puzzle for audience interpretation. I can find four different ways to interpret what happens in the film’s closing act, each relying on the outcome of another unseen either/or situation. But be assured, not a one of them is less bleak than the others. It’s just multiple versions of having to do what is necessary in order to save a family. It’s multiple instances of what people will do when they’re desperate. That’s not even a spoiler. If you couldn’t see the inevitable conclusion coming the you weren’t paying attention.
In an already banner year for horror films, It Comes at Night is another success.