Review: It Comes at Night
I attended an outdoor screening of It Comes at Night a few weeks ago. Watching a film about the danger of what lies in the dark in the woods while sitting in the dark in the woods was certainly unsettling. The biggest take away from the screening was what the director, Trey Edward Shults, said when he introduced the film. The writer-director admitted that he was in a dark place when he wrote this film — his father had just passed away after a fight with cancer and Shults spent his time reading about various plagues. He also said that this wasn’t a typical horror movie. This confession was all the setup I needed once the film began.
It Comes at Night is more personal drama than the monster-in-the-woods movie the trailers might have you believe. Joel Edgerton plays Paul, a husband who has sealed his family in their home (now a makeshift doomsday bunker) out in a remote area in the woods. The danger outside is two-fold — a disease has killed an untold number of the surrounding population and the survivors are now scavengers desperate for resources. Plastic sheets surround the entrance of the home and there’s only one way inside and out — a bolted door painted a sinister shade of crimson. Paul has a system in place to keep the disease and anyone infected out — he has gloves and gas masks at the ready, along with enough gasoline to burn anything contaminated, human or otherwise.
The system is fractured with the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbott), who says he has his own family to take care of and is need of food and water. Survival is an obsession — Paul wants to trust Will, but the world has delved into a kill-or-be-killed mentality. And once the two families decide to come together under the same roof, the pleasantries run short as distrust heightens. It's all about what's not said. There's not much talk about the disease that these families are protecting themselves from. We know its effects and we see what it does to the human body, but we don't know how far it has spread or just how many people are still alive out in the world. The isolation of these characters only raises the stakes because it all becomes personal for these characters. There's no safe haven or antidote out there — there's a bleak world-ending vibe that seeps through the whole film.
Writer-director Shults is more concerned with the horror on a human level above anything else. We see most of the film from Paul’s son’s, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), point of view. He begins to have vivid dreams about the terror outside. It’s in these dreams sequences where Shults shows us some truly disturbing images — he wisely plays with the film’s aspect ratio in these moments, signifying a shift into the abnormal. Slow pull-ins, static shots; Shults keeps the camera subdued, letting the atmosphere permeate through the film. I couldn't help but think of The Shining and Kubrick's cabin fever paranoia when watching the events unfold in It Comes at Night's single-location story.
Joel Edgerton is the standout performer here. He’s had a long string of indie performances that have shown his caliber (if you haven’t seen The Gift yet, please do so), and It Comes at Night is more proof Edgerton needs to be catapulted into the A-list. There a scene where Paul is speaking with Will, which takes a drastic turn, and Edgerton sells the inward confusion, frustration, doubt, and panic that’s coursing through his character’s mind in that moment.
Distributor A24 has another indie hit and one of the best films of year on their hands. Similar to The Witch, there will be people walking into It Comes at Night expecting one thing and getting something else completely. This is a cerebral experience, and not at all a pleasant one. It’s a personal work from a director coming off of his well-received directorial debut Krisha. With two films under his belt, Shults has proved he’s one of the most interesting new voices in film. With a limited budget, he manages to make It Comes at Night a successful pulse-pounding, heart-wrenching, blood-soaked drama. I can’t wait to see what Shults comes up with next.