Promising writer and director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) has crafted a thoughtful and stylish but somewhat slight addition to the psychological-horror sub-genre that explores how far people will go to protect their loved ones in an apocalyptic near-future.
Scoring big with critics, It Comes at Night has polarized moviegoers who waltz into theatres anticipating gore and emerge asking “WHAT comes at night?” Because it isn’t a typical horror film, but a series of moments in which patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenaged son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), deal with paranoia and isolation as a highly infectious “zombie disease” devastates the world.
WARNING: SEMI-SPOILERS BELOW.
Loss is the crux of the story, implicit in the unyielding precision with which Paul protects his family. It begins with the three at their secluded woodland home preparing to euthanize Sarah’s diseased father, who has withered to a greyish husk. With Travis’s help, Paul shoots him and then burns his body to avoid spreading the disease. Later, Sarah rebukes Paul for involving Travis in the grisly ritual — he responds that he couldn’t do it on his own. A distraught Travis promises his grandfather’s beloved dog that he’ll look after him.
“You can’t trust anyone but family,” says Paul, a former teacher. Surrounded by miles of forest, they fortify their house with gas masks, guns, electric lanterns, water filtration systems, and complex double locks. Tension pervades; in an outstanding dream sequence, a Bruegel painting segues into dark nooks and crannies and things that go bump in the night.
The boogeyman soon appears as an intruder named Will (Christopher Abbot) searching for potable water for his young wife and son. After Paul brutally interrogates him, Sarah convinces Paul to move the three into their home. Paul and Will venture into the forest to collect his family; en route, they’re attacked by two men, whom Will swears he doesn’t know.
To Will’s shock, Paul kills them without hesitation. They return to the house with Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and toddler. For a time, the younger, hipper family folds into the household’s routine of chores and communal meals. Will forms a tentative friendship with Travis and teaches him to chop wood, and the latter develops a crush on Kim. But Travis experiences increasingly bad dreams. His dog disappears in the forest, triggering events that heighten the two families’ wariness of each other … and end in tragic violence.
With its haunting sound design and claustrophobic chiaroscuro lensing, the film efficiently communicates how fear makes ordinary people do very bad things. The acting is solid across the board; bearded and in rough clothing, Joel Edgerton as Paul is a truculent presence motivated by love for his family. Kim and Sarah are more loosely sketched, though Sarah calls the shots at times and subverts stereotypical gender roles. The film’s diverse cast is an added boon; Sarah and Travis are visible minority characters who aren’t treated as “others.” As Travis, Kelvin Harrison Jr., gives a finely tuned performance as he grapples with obeying his parents and being his own person.
But the story’s framework is a major issue. Later events are tenuously threaded and build to an ambiguous, anti-climactic ending that doesn’t quite pay off, though the film is a refreshing change from the traditional three-act stories dominating North American cinema. Clearly, Shults wants viewers to interpret the film as they see fit. But red herrings and apparent plot holes weaken its main thrust.
All in all–definitely worth watching. I give it 7 out of 10 diseased corpses.