**** out of ****
(for violence, disturbing images, and strong language)
Released: June 9, 2017
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough
I’ve never seen nihilism imbued with so much humanity.
Like a more accessible David Lynch film, fueled by the same palpable slow burn of dread (rather than the cheap shocks of slasher gore or torture porn), It Comes At Night is an all-consuming visceral experience from first frame to last.
It’s a horror movie that doesn’t get bogged down in mythology or lore, nor does it suffer the insecurity of laborious exposition. This is a tight, taught, unrelenting 90 minutes of pure harrowing survival.
The less you know the better, not only as you read this review but, per writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ keen narrative restraint, even during the movie itself. Avoiding backstory entirely, we are given strictly the immediate present: holed up in a forest home, a couple and their young adult son struggle to protect themselves from an unseen evil. They live (barely) in some sort of post-apocalyptic world, caused by a pathogen rather than a war. If infected, the results aren’t merely lethal but nasty.
Something lurks out in the woods, too. Whatever it is that comes at night, it’s a thing that goes more than bump.
The dad, Paul (Joel Edgerton), has a system for everything, from day-to-day living to response protocol for dangers. This delicate balance is potentially threatened when a daytime intruder breaks into their home, a young man seeking shelter for his wife and boy. After wrestling with the worst-case possibilities, not to mention an arduous interrogation of the intruder, the family agrees to give them refuge (albeit very reluctantly for Paul).
Existence in this world is so fragile, with resources so few and safety so tenuous, that fostering trust is simultaneously a desperate yet futile endeavor. No matter how trustworthy new strangers may be, even over time, what’s built can be lost in an instant, and by no fault of anyone. The whole stressful reality creates a gnawing underlying tension that’s impossible to shake.
What unfolds isn’t merely a tale of escalating, compounding fear, but an examination of the fight to sustain hope when life only offers endings, not beginnings. Of maintaining normalcy, even levity, in the face of inevitable doom. Or the fear that creeps in when there’s no understanding or diagnosis for how a plague so deadly is contracted or passed on. As a result, when even the slightest, most innocent abnormality occurs, mind games are unavoidable.
More existentially: what happens when your need to survive is challenged by your conscience, causing you to weigh your ability to live (a gut instinct) against your ability to live with yourself (your soul). What are you willing to risk? Or, when tables turn, even beyond anyone’s control, what cold-blooded savagery are you prepared to inflict in order to protect the ones you love from suffering a particularly gruesome fate? And are you prepared to be barbaric…on a hunch?
This all plays out as new relationship dynamics emerge and situational ethics are colored with more emotional shades, making the plot increasingly unpredictable and weighted with moral stakes. While not a complex or labyrinth tale it’s impossible to know where this thing is going, and just when you think you’ve got it figured out it jerks you in another direction. Uncertainty permeates the film’s entire structure, arc, and atmosphere because it haunts every decision.
The cast embodies all of this not in heightened, melodramatic strokes (although to be clear there is plenty of intense, very high drama) but rather in ones that evoke a deep, even profound compassion for everyone involved. There’s a default sympathy for Paul’s family because they’re the ones that the story first establishes, but it just as easily could’ve shifted that preference to the younger family if the story had been told from their point of view. Both families are portrayed with equal pity, even as situations force them to make cruel decisions.
UPDATE: Following a conversation with my colleague Charles Elmore on the OFCC Podcast, it’s also fascinating to consider how this plays in parallel to our current culture: the immigration debate, the strangers in our midst, the risk of taking in the refugee, and how fear and uncertainty can poison the well of compassion even when trustworthy conduct is expressed in good faith.
Shults, in only his second outing, wields total command over his material with visionary precision and immense cinematic power. Fulfilling the promise that was apparent even in his microbudgeted debut Krisha (about a dysfunctional Thanksgiving family weekend with real horrors of its own), Shults crafts a tangibly primal experience, not only with his grasp of genre and visual acuity (this is truly, patiently cinematic) but also through an unnerving, unsettling soundscape. Provocative and disturbing but never mindless or heartless, this is a serious work by a serious filmmaker.
Brace yourself to be completely absorbed by a menacing gravitational pull. It Comes At Night is not for the faint of heart, stomach, or psyche, in no small measure because it’s burdened by lament as much as it is scares. And in the end, it ultimately doesn’t matter what comes at night. The terror is already there, inside them, as deadly as any disease, and it’s never going to leave.