Restrained, rigorous, and unrelentingly bleak, It Comes at Night is a daunting drama with a grueling mood; a lithe exploration of family amidst intense scrutiny and paranoia; and a patient, pulse-pounding thriller that’s – refreshingly, terrifyingly – not about the things that go bump in the night. Lean and mean, it comes packaged to rouse people from their slumber and keep them up shaking in their beds.
At the end of the world, an inexplicable illness has caused Paul and his wife and son to retreat into a desolate house in the woods that’s boarded up and live under a strict set of “rules”; the only entrance is through a blood-red door. One evening, Will breaks through the door, claiming a desperate need for water for his family. As seeds of mistrust are sown within the walls, Paul begins to doubt everything around him and takes aggressive action to defend and protect those in danger, no matter who they might be.
As Paul, Joel Edgerton, already trained in the art of violent, family-driven thrillers like Animal Kingdom and Midnight Special, as well as the less-violent, family-driven Loving, gives the most robust, full-blooded performance of a very fine cast that is unfortunately underused. Riley Keough, who has starred in everything from Magic Mike to the similarly-themed post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road and impressed critics greatly in American Honey and The Girlfriend Experience, has few lines and little screen time, but the one moment she has to shine is so effective, it might qualify as the most memorable of the entire running time.
Carmen Ejogo, who broke out in Selma, has a bit more to play with, but still remains a cypher, despite earnest attempts to connect. Christopher Abbott, who launched a notable indie filmography in 2011 with a role in Martha Marcy May Marlene and went on to A Most Violent Year and James White (the role that got him this one) sinks his teeth into Will with a ferocity befitting the character.
What becomes apparent early on is that It Comes at Night is not a showcase for the actors, nor a vehicle through which to tell the story, but an exhibition of cinematic technique. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ primary collaborators, including cinematographer Drew Daniels, composer Brian McOmber, and sound designer Kris Fenske – do standout work in fashioning such an unsettling atmosphere.
Daniels is drawn to the shadowy, single-light compositions of Caravaggio or early film noir, and the camerawork, as it veers down long hallways and observes people climbing stairs, is remarkable. Shults and Daniels conjure up particularly eerie mental discomfort when in the forest, where many things come to a head. Unlike Krisha, which relied moreso on the centrality of Krisha Fairchild, It Comes at Night is first and foremost a directorial film, rather than a narrative, conceptual, or performance-heavy one.
The screenplay seems completely allergic to providing any context or background for its characters, which initially creates a great sense of mystery and doubles as a bold rejection of exposition mistakes that are riddled throughout the filmographies of strong directors. Unfortunately, its sparseness – its absolute economy – also makes it impossible to understand the stakes or to resonate with the horrors when so little is known about the nature of the threat. Still, it tears apart the line “You can’t trust anyone but family” with a ruthlessness that makes it hard to look away.
Tonally, It Comes at Night is also a stomach-churning dose of black-heartedness, along the lines of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, and actually owes much to George Romero and Night of the Living Dead. The last thirty minutes feature decisions that would damn Paul’s soul (if not the souls of a number of others). It then progresses to a brutally pessimistic ending that all but reaffirms one’s worst suspicions about the irredeemability of humanity. Now a film that announces its theme of “Fear turns men into monsters” in its official trailer is not at all subtle, nor revelatory in its insight. But it can still get under the skin and fester.
This is arthouse horror filmmaking decidedly not for the mainstream, but more akin to Goodnight Mommy. Ominous, unbearably tense, ambiguous, and minimalist to the point of cutting out everything extraneous (even any kind of explanation as to the meaning of the title), It Comes at Night is an above-average film that confirms Shults as a filmmaker with a unique voice and style, albeit one that has strayed little from his designated paths. Both his debut and this gutsy, nasty slice of darkness feel like the product of a very intentional creative mind. And with talent like this, who knows what he will do next?