Atmospheric and menacing, Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature It Comes At Night is a family drama disguised as a horror movie that works on both levels.
The “it” in the title of Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore release It Comes At Night is as much of a mystery as the plague that has driven the characters in the movie into seclusion. Though the set-up of the film feels familiar — a pandemic has plagued the population and pushed resources to their minimum — Shults, the visionary behind the terrifying Thanksgiving dinner in Krisha, does away with the exposition quickly and leaves us with a truly terrifying humanist drama.
The pandemic in It Comes At Night is never the focus of the film. All we know is that people are becoming sick and dying, resources are scarce, and the living are doing their best to protect from contamination and anything else lurking in the woods. Shults, who also wrote the film, doesn’t go for the cheap scares. If anything, the anxiety of anticipating the scare is more terrifying than anything a studio horror film could muster up. Instead, much like his debut film, he goes for atmosphere and building tension. The camera — Krisha‘s DP Drew Daniels also shot this film — slowly navigates the dark nooks and crannies of the remote forest home that the movie takes place in while Brian McOmber’s screeching score with a heartbeat baseline plays in the background. It Comes At Night features the worst attribute an audience member can go up against in a horror movie — patience.
The film opens with Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) surrounding Sarah’s sick father as he slowly succumbs to the pandemic. After disposing of his body, we are introduced to their home — and dog, Stanley — which they have boarded up and turned into a stronghold. Paul maintains strict rules that are meant to keep his family safe and maintain a sense of normalcy — they all eat dinner together every night and unless absolutely necessary, they do not go out at night. However, when they have a run-in with another family, they take the opportunity to add some companionship to their day to day lives. This other family consisting of Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), is taken in by Paul and Sarah and shown a hospitality that is often shown in moments of distress. And for a time, life seems a bit easier. However, like anything good, it has to come to an end. Tensions rise as mistrust begins to run rampant in the house. And like any other animal, when back against a corner, humans attack.
I think A.O Scott put it best in his review saying, “Mr. Shults’s first feature, the remarkable Krisha, was a family drama that often felt like a horror movie. It Comes at Night is the reverse.” The horror elements of It Comes At Night, largely relegated to Travis’ nightmares, are the centerpiece of the movie. However, the bulk of the movie is this question of the lengths people will go to protect themselves and their loved ones when times become desperate. Shults explores it intimately but leaves all the answering to the audience. It’s one of the most interesting things about the movie. There are no clear answers or signs pointing in a particular direction. If anything, any symbolism that Shults includes almost further complicates any dissecting that can be done in the movie. It’s what makes this movie so polarizing. Anyone expecting a straight horror movie will not get that. However, what you do get can only be described as a masterpiece.
Joel Edgerton gives what is, in my opinion, the best performance of his career, which is only another indication that he is becoming one of our greatest actors — his performance in Loving was originally, for me, his best performance. It’s a realistic performance that shows our innate conflict in difficult situations flawlessly. Carmen Ejogo also does great work as a woman who is desperately trying to hold on to her morals and Kelvin Harrison Jr. tackles the difficult task of being our point-of-view beautifully. However, in addition to Edgerton, the biggest standout for me is Riley Keough. Her role is less plot-focused than the other characters, but she represents, along with her son, innocence in the situation. She’s seeing everything from the perspective of the old world even though nothing is the same.
It Comes At Night is about anxiety and the toll that it can take on you physically and emotionally. It’s about the lengths to which we will go to survive. It’s about the compassion we can feel in the darkest of situations. It’s about trust, how it’s earned, and how it’s lost. Shults balances all these themes without straying from its psychological thriller roots. He is a visionary filmmaker that understands that film is not only about making the audience feel but also think. And think you will. Sometimes the thinking is the scariest part of the film. Because once you think you understand something, you see it from another perspective or something happens to make you rethink everything. This is a morality play at its finest. There are no heros and no villains. There are simply humans in a house.