'It Comes at Night'
Kind of a zombie movie without the zombies and certainly a film without hope, ‘It Comes at Night’ is a brutal, gut-wrenching and cynical stab at the apocalyptic pandemic genre. Don’t go unless you want to feel worse about humanity.
Writer/director Trey Edwards Shults (‘Krisha’) doesn’t exactly waste time on niceties with his sophomore effort. Within seconds of the movie starting, we see an ill old man murdered and buried by his family. It was done out of compassion. Some sort of unnamed and unknown plague has been wiping out humanity.
Joel Edgerton stars as Paul, a former history teacher locked up in a house in the woods with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). The old man was Sarah’s father. They’ve clearly seen death before. They barely ever go outside, especially at night. However, one evening some new life comes to them when a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks down their door. They worry he’s a murderer or possibly sick. He’s neither, just a struggling father trying to protect his own wife (Riley Keough) and toddler. Paul reluctantly invites the new family into his home to share resources and company. Of course, this isn’t the sort of movie where happiness and community are rewarded, is it?
From the opening frames, ‘It Comes at Night’ establishes a distinct tone of dread (both existential and visceral) that cuts deep and never lets up. There’s no hope offered. Things don’t get better. Viewers can’t expect any sort of origin or explanation for the plague either. It’s just a fact and we never learn more details. The camera is perpetually creeping, pushing, and probing the characters. There are almost no moments of rest. Tension is perpetually mounting and even pleasant moments of connection between the families are typically misdirects or setup for a nightmare dream sequence.
While ‘It Comes at Night’ has been sold as horror and indeed features scares, it’s not a conventional entry in the genre. The film has no monsters beyond humans desperate to survive (a convention of zombie tales for sure, but this flick thankfully contains none of those overexposed shuffling corpses). Shults has admitted that he was inspired to write the script following a family tragedy. The movie is as much defined by loss as by dread. Tragedy and death hang over every frame. Death feels inevitable and always seems but a few moments away. Something terrifying about that concept translates to viewers. Along with a few jump scares and nightmares, it pushes the film into horror. However, the focus is more psychological than visceral. Shultz plays to our heads and hearts more than our guts.
The performances are uniformly fantastic and carry this strange little tale of doom and gloom. Joel Edgerton portrays a man living in perpetual survival mode, with his empathy rarely stretching beyond his family. He presents a man who has been beaten down and is heartbreakingly cold in his calculations for survival. Carmen Ejogo is quietly lost as his wife, having accepted the horrible world in which she lives with only flickers of compassion left behind her chilly exterior. Riley Keough and Christopher Abbott have more joy and hope left in them as a younger couple, but that only makes it more painful when they inevitably slip into desperation. Youngster Kelvin Harrison, Jr. slowly emerges as the heart of the film, a teenager growing into a man who has already seen too much as a child. His sexuality is developing in a world without intimacy, much less potential partners. He wants a better life and believes there can be one, and watching his cruel fate for that sense of hope might be the most painful aspect of a movie defined by misery and pain. He’s extraordinary.
As you might have gathered by now, ‘It Comes at Night’ isn’t exactly a pleasant viewing experience. This is easily one of the bleakest and most brutal American films of the year despite the director’s tastefully reserved approach to violence and his plague. The way the filmmaker makes you care about his characters in a world destined to destroy them cuts the deepest and serves as proof that the most unsettling genre movies don’t need monsters. People can fill that role just fine. Viewers who enjoy the experience of being emotionally battered, bruised and horrified at the movies will find ‘It Comes at Night’ one to savor.