Recent trailers and TV spots for Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes At Night may have deceived anyone planning to watch the film. Today’s expectations of what constitutes as horror, combined with the assumption that the film’s title was to be interpreted as literal, will likely leave audiences looking for what they were sold by the marketing unfulfilled. It Comes At Night is not a high-octane viral outbreak thriller, nor is it the jump scare creature feature that many guessed. Instead, it is a deeply haunting, nerve-shredding micro-examination of grief and humanity.
In the post-apocalyptic backwoods of America, some time after an unidentified viral outbreak has wiped out much of the population, Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family live in a secure, desolate home and are still settling into a life in their new tragic world. Paul keeps the peace by religiously following a daily routine: he, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) take turns doing chores, hunting down food, and spending suppers together. By doing so, they better retain some sense of the lives they once had before the plague came – before the night bled into dark days and the stars themselves hid from the fury of man’s own damnation.
The terms of the plague itself and its scope are left a blank canvas for the audience’s’ imagination. The opening scene parcels out all of the information the viewer really needs to know about the virus: it’s highly infectious and without cure. This is all these characters really know, too, as they’ve long since been cut off from the rest of the world. There’s an established routine of attempted normalcy while the looming threat of infection promises to overtake them with one wrong step. And all can be either improved or upended when they welcome another desperate family into their household.
The viral outbreak film has been done many times over. However, that is not the story Shults is interested in telling. Instead, he hones in on one innocuous family and forces them to intensely face the ultimate fear: the fear of death. How far do we risk our humanity for the sake of preserving the life we’ve built with our loved ones? What price are we willing to pay to save them? The atmosphere is so thick with dread that nothing much needs to happen to make the viewer sweat – if It Comes At Night is a horror movie, one wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it, but by feeling it. There are no bells and whistles employed here to superficially enhance the experience, no window dressing to keep viewers engaged who might otherwise not be. The film isstripped bare and built from the ground up to be about people, which is why the sparse information presented in the film is so effective. The audience experiences life with Paul’s family, learning only what the family learns and adhering to whatever constraints confine the family. By limiting information and forcing the audience to empathize with the hardships and limitations of these characters, Shults is able to focus more on the feeling of paranoia rather than on frightening imagery. As a result, the screen fading to black is not a sigh of relief, but instead a time to grab onto the edge of one’s seat.
In this utterly intense apocalyptic fever dream of a film, Paul thinks that he’s protecting his family by staving off stragglers who come stumbling around their little prairie property. In reality, he’s only feeding the paranoia that the end of times has provided and ensuring that what is left of his familial unit won’t resemble anything even remotely human – they’ll be nothing more than monsters.
Joel Edgerton is incredible in this role, both as the resourceful badass and the troubled everyman. As his star rises, one only hopes he keeps contributing to artistic cinema. Edgerton effortlessly emits a patriarch mentality and unrelenting love for his family. But just as easily, one sees the little voices in Paul’s head picking away at him. Bit by bit, nagging at his subconscious, these voices spread rumors through an imaginary grapevine, whispering fervently that he’s made a horrible mistake. He constantly thinks to himself that he never should have agreed to let the outsiders in, and informs his son, “You can’t trust anyone but family.” By opening up their hearts they may have just committed the cardinal sin of allowing vulnerability in a hardened world where only the jaded can survive.
Paul’s family is tough, yet the major events of the film tax their endurance and show just how vulnerable they can become. Travis is arguably the most vulnerable character in this family, and it’s a sensible choice that he is our main viewpoint throughout the course of the film, as he is just as curious about morality as we viewers are. Travis is coming of age in a world long since ravaged by an apocalyptic plague, creating an interesting dynamic between youthful naiveté and a subconscious ravaged by his bleak reality. Harrison is outstanding in the role, often the silent observer of the household, wide-eyed and achingly sweet. We want so much more for Travis, but we know in the opening seconds of the film that there is no happily ever after. We’ve come into a world well after it’s moved on, and Travis is in the prime of his life when humanity’s own prime has long passed.
The rest of the cast is superb as well, and it’s interesting to note that the film centers around an interracial family yet has no actual mention of race throughout. It Comes At Night treats this family like it would any other family that could be in this situation. Race isn’t even superficial in this film, it’s non-existent; this gives the cast and crew more opportunities to focus on characterizing the paranoia of the unknown, with the tension between people becoming increasingly taut as the film goes on. Everyone here is playing with different levels of hope eclipsed by pervasive dread, holding on to near-friendships that are drowning in distrust, and trying to adhere to Paul’s routine to maintain sanity and security in this new world. However, running underneath the calm of this unchanging procedure, behind everything they do and each decision they make, there’s a coursing river of fear. They have been untouched by the plague only by grace and good fortune; but they’ll never be free, because they’ll never be safe.
Furthermore, while It Comes At Night is very simply constructed, it’s still a technical marvel. The film utilizes the technical aspects of filmmaking to enhance the atmosphere and emotion with gorgeous efficacy. As Shults stated in an interview, “If we’re going to make a movie called It Comes at Night, I want to feel the night.” From Drew Daniels’ stunning cinematography and effective sound design to the eerie practical lighting, the night truly becomes personified. It’s an oppressive shroud that leaves you vulnerable in the darkness. Through it, the characters’ nightmares become tangible; the dread pervades to the very core.
It Comes at Night is such a visually powerful film, tight and oppressive, tinged with darkness in even the most innocuous scenes. It’s devastating, an unblinking gaze at the cost of our collective fear of death, our own and that of those we love, asking what that fear does to us, what it takes from us when we’re still alive. It’s a sense-provoking, full-bodied experience that will cause an entire audience to exhale heavily when the credits finally start to roll. The only aspect of the film that could leave something to be desired is that various nightmare sequences, while brilliantly executed and ultimately effective, lack a clear thematic significance that could have added deep layers to the fears of the character experiencing them. Nonetheless, the best things about It Comes At Night are just how little we actually see or hear, in terms of what’s going on. Paul’s family, and mainly Travis, doesn’t always fully understand what is going on and, by association, neither do we. Since they don’t know the full details, we also never learn what plague ended the world that makes these characters so cautious. The only thing that everyone knows for sure is the fear of death and the paranoia that’s looming right behind that red door. And, in the end, it’s this relentless paranoia that proves to be the more invasive illness than the plague that inspired it.
Image Credits: IMDb