by Corey Koepper
★★★★ (OUT OF 5)
RATED R 1H 31 MIN
JUNE 9 2017 HORROR, DRAMA
DIRECTOR: TREY EDWARD SHULTS
Attached to the title of a horror movie like ‘It Comes at Night’ is a seemingly basic question – what is “it”? The answer is the scariest thing about Trey Edward Shults’ second feature, because “it” does not reveal itself easily. “It” isn’t lurking in the woods at night, preparing to jump out at an unexpected time, in the form of a zombie or related creature. “It” is paranoia, fear, and loss. It’s already with the characters as the film begins, around every corner of their boarded up, dimly lit home. And along with the immediately surrounding forest, it is where their story is confined, through an hour and a half saturated with suspense, dread, and the overwhelming anticipation of death.
Sounds like fun, right? Rest assured, ‘It Comes at Night’ is slow, sad, and far from a lighthearted watch. But its world is so well-conceived, with authentic characters and a director so in-tune with their emotions, that immersing yourself in this claustrophobic, slow burning drama is a remarkably unique and thought-provoking experience.
Seeing the premise on paper doesn’t quite invoke the same reaction. “Family trying to avoid contagious disease outside” seems like the stuff of a pretty standard post-apocalyptic retread. As for any glimpse of conventional horror, the illness does in fact make one puke blood and erupt in warts. Eyes even turn pitch black.
But those expecting more straightforward horror or exciting plot twists will likely be disappointed by ‘It Comes at Night,’ which couldn’t be more antithetical to the familiar genre elements used to market it. The terror is mostly contained within the deeply human fears of the characters, instead of jump scares. Those who become ill, through basically any form of contact with the diseased, don’t become rabid and attack like in 28 Days Later. They just die. When trying to protect your family, to retain any sense of civilization among those you love, that’s of course the scariest prospect of all.
Paul (Joel Edgerton) is the father trying to keep it all together. His son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) obey his strict rules for survival – always go out in pairs, and never go out at night. If the lone door with striking red paint is open, that’s probably a reason to panic.For the most part, they remain secluded in their house, only leaving to scrounge for food, water, or wood. If there’s any chance they might become in the presence of the diseased, they wear gas masks and gloves. We don’t know to what extent the illness has ravaged the outside world, but things look bleak. Paul runs the tightest of ships, until a few unexpected visitors shake things up. Their dog barks in alarm. “It” is here with them, stronger than ever.
Following in the footsteps of paranoia-based horror like Night of the Living Dead and The Thing (Edgerton certainly channels Kurt Russell at his best), 28-year-old Shults builds an unsettling atmosphere that’s effective in convincing us there’s always something we won’t be able to know about this world, something we can’t quite pin down. The entire film retains this sense of mystery, but there’s the feeling throughout that there won’t be any sort of traditional payoff.
Because we’re grounded in the immediacy of the characters’ emotions, feeling the tension as they feel it, the threat of death within ‘It Comes at Night’ feels very real. But as one never truly “expects” to die, and while we might think in the back of our heads that bleak outcomes are looming in the film, we’re still bound to an “everything will be okay” type of instinct. The same drive that keeps the characters alive is the one that keeps us watching.
Using natural light sources such as lanterns, and implementing choices like slow zooms that bring the tension to unbearable heights, ‘It Comes at Night’ is a triumph of direction and production design. Visually fascinating, the interior scenes are specifically detailed and atmospheric. The sound design is equally awesome at leading us down whichever psychological rabbit hole a particular scene has in store. We inhabit the characters’ space like another member of the family.
The performances are also terrific. Edgerton’s anguish, the constant struggle between the domestic order he has created and the tough moral decisions that come into play, are written on his face with incredible nuance. It’s hard to look away.Kelvin Harrison Jr., however, playing 17-year-old Travis, comes to represent the emotional undercurrent of the movie in a tremendous sense. His horrific nightmares, which become increasingly inseparable from reality, are where the movie finds its more conventional horror/suspense moments. They are also the most subjective moments in the film, reflective of the teenager’s emotional revelations, pertaining to grief, family, sex, the nature of truth, and the acceptance of death. Seeing through Travis’ eyes helps us understand the story to a greater extent, and Harrison is a perfect fit. There are many scenes constructed around the specific vein of naturalistic dialogue that Shults writes, and a particular conversation between Harrison and one of the visitors showcases his acting ability in a major way.
This is not the type of movie that’s going to answer all your questions. At the end of my screening, a few audience members definitely looked pissed. For every aspect of ‘It Comes at Night’ that is especially well-made, there’s another that’s slightly off-putting and not mass consumable. So will Shults make the indie-to-blockbuster jump and be approached to direct the next hit Marvel flick? Who knows. Despite its semi-wide release, I doubt that your average moviegoer is going to sprint to the theater for a second viewing. But at the end of the day, it’s refreshing to see a summer release that feels like it was genuinely made for thinking adults, instead of the 12-17 demographic.
Ultimately, “It Comes at Night” is an ambitious, challenging film that leaves you with a set of particularly unsettling questions. To what extent do we make assumptions about others when we fear for the lives of those close to us? Additionally, what’s the point of shutting yourself out from the world if you’re only going to implode from the inside? Draw any political conclusions from the movie you’d like, as there’s surely a lot open to interpretation. The only real certainty is that everything has an end. The path to that end can take any number of turns, but that won’t change the inevitable. Knowing this, do you allow “it” to come? Or is “it” as inevitable as the rest? I honestly don’t know. And man, is it terrifying.