Travis’s grandfather is not well. As It Comes at Night opens, he has been infected with an unknown disease. His body is covered in open sores, his eyes black, and occasionally he contorts and vomits blood. He mercifully passes on, much to the family’s sadness but ultimate relief. The next step is burning the body to ensure the sickness doesn’t spread. And that’s just the opening scene. It Comes at Night is a relentlessly bleak exercise in paranoia and distrust that taps into some of the deepest fears within the human condition. While it’s serviceable, if relatively tame, as a tool of blunt horror, it’s far more engaging as a study of the lengths we’ll go to protect our loved ones in a world where law and order are long gone.
Joel Edgerton stars as Paul, the father to teen-aged Travis (Harrison Jr.) and husband to Sarah (Ejogo). As this unknown virus ravages the country, Paul and his family are holed up in a desolate country house. The windows are boarded up and there’s only one way in or out: through two sets of heavily locked doors that only Paul or Sarah has the keys to at a given time. Also, no one is to exit the house at night. Late one night, an intruder breaks in. Paul subdues the individual and ties him to a tree, seeking answers for what he was attempting to do. The man’s name is Will (Abbott), and he broke in, assuming the house is unoccupied, looking for water for his own family. Sympathizing for a desperate man with a family to care for, Paul cautiously takes them in. Soon, a thick fog of distrust forms as the foundations of Will’s story begin to creak and the threat of infection rises.
Writer/director Trey Edward Shults, in only his second feature film, demonstrates a knack for building dread and atmosphere in a world with, frankly, little to live for. Shot in confined spaces using natural light and often in near-blackness, Shults effortlessly raises goosebumps. Successful horror films often make what you don’t see scarier than what you do, and Shults is uncannily skilled at letting your brain materialize the terror. On the narrative end, Shults gets a bit too crafty and convoluted as the story unfolds. This is particularly harmful in late scenes when a character contracts the virus, but we have no clue how or when. A terrifying possibility does emerge from this unknown, but as it stands the uncertainty is more frustrating than satisfying. The ensemble performances are excellent, particularly Edgerton, taking on a Tommy Lee Jones vibe in the lead and Harrison Jr. as the teenager forced to adapt to a rigid and merciless world. In a summer filled with the usual sequels and reboots, It Comes at Night is a welcome breath of fresh air from a filmmaker with a lot of promise.
Studio: A24 Films
Length: 97 Minutes
Rating: R for violence, disturbing images, and language.
Theatrical Release: June 9, 2017
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Written by: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr.