A dystopian nightmare that packs a punch.
By Alex Welch
When I left my screening of Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, I could feel my whole body shaking – from the moment I got up from my theater seat, through the entire ride home, until I went to sleep a couple hours later. Described as a post-apocalyptic horror film, the truly astonishing feat of It Comes at Night is that while none of it necessarily scared me like The Witch or The Conjuring did, its images still managed to stay imprinted on the insides of my eyelids, ready for me to revisit whenever I closed my eyes. It Comes at Night left me haunted on a very human level.
The movie fulfills the promise of Shults’ last outing, Krisha, a micro-budget drama set within a claustrophobic environment, that was also about the tension threatening to tear a family apart from from each other. But unlike Krisha, Shults translates that similar kind of story into a film that feels more like a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller crossed with a paranoid horror story about monsters lurking in the woods. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to either genre, but it combines the two to devastating effect, with a dreamlike narrative and style that lets its tone and paranoia seep into you long before the film’s plot even sets itself into motion.
On that note, It Comes at Night is best experienced by going in knowing and seeing as little as possible, which means avoiding detail-heavy plot synopses and trailers. For context’s sake, I’ll say that the film takes place sometime after a mysterious, infectious disease has apparently begun taking out a majority of humanity. It follows a family living in a boarded-up house in the woods, led by Joel Edgerton’s Paul and Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah, who cross paths with another family, led by Christopher Abbott’s Will and Riley Keough’s Kim. As their lives continue to intertwine, the threat of each family being wiped out by the disease only increases, and as such, the paranoia from both sides spreads faster than the plague they’re trying to avoid catching in the first place.
Wisely, Shults goes out of his way to ground everything in the film from the opening scene, which without spoiling anything, instantly lays the groundwork for the world he’s creating, and the emotional stress that the fear of this disease is putting on its characters. Told partly from the perspective of Paul and Sarah’s son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the film uses its setting to touch on themes of innocence, and how ruthless the world can be about ripping it away from someone. As Travis develops a minor crush on Kim throughout the film, Shults manages to effectively show just how hard it would be for anyone, but specifically a young boy or girl, to grow up in a world like the one in It Comes at Night. Is Travis attracted to Kim because he legitimately feels a connection to her? Or because she’s the first woman other than his mom who he’s crossed paths with since the outbreak began?
It Comes at Night offers very little in terms of concrete answers to those kinds of questions, or what’s even happening to some of the characters. Because of that, the film will likely evoke divisive reactions from those who go to see it, between those who were engrossed enough by the questions and themes it raises, and those who think the film offered too little in terms of explanation or resolution. It’s hard to argue with either side, since most of that just comes down to what each filmgoer wants and expects from their movies. Admittedly, there are even times when it feels like Shults may be simply padding the runtime of his film more than offering genuinely important story information. That might have hurt It Comes at Night more too if it hadn’t taken the time to establish such an engrossing mood and sense of doom beforehand.
All of that’s to say that, It Comes at Night is one of the smartest additions to the post-apocalyptic sub-genre to come along in years. It’s directed by a filmmaker with a fluid and assured sense of what it is he wants to accomplish, and who does so with mostly flying colors. The result marks yet another standout achievement for A24, the studio behind the film, whose reputation and respect in the entertainment industry only continues to grow with each passing year. Very few other studios operating today release the kinds of films they do, which push the boundaries of contemporary audience expectations in new and exciting ways. Fortunately, It Comes at Night sets out – and succeeds – at doing the very same.
It Comes at Night
A man (Joel Edgerton) learns that the evil stalking his family home may be only a prelude to horrors that come from within.
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It Comes at Night is a film about family. Two to be specific, with each trying to stay together, with no desire to tear the other one apart. But the battle to stay alive, more often than not, will have deadly implications for everyone involved. This is no new idea for the dystopian genre to explore, but few manage to touch on it with as much of an impact as It Comes at Night.