Director: Trey Edward Shults Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough Running Time: 91 minutes
Shotguns getting cocked. Barking dogs. Barricaded houses. Cagey, distrustful men with southern accents. Fear of the dying and their blood and their viscera. Hiding infections. Arguments. Us or them. Shotguns getting shot.
It Comes at Night is not a film about zombies, but it’s undoubtedly a film that knows that its audience is familiar with zombie tropes, and that they can use them to follow the film’s path even as it obscures everything in darkness. When you’re as sick as the delirious, sore-covered grandfather who’s shown as this film opens, it’s immediately clear that a mercy kill is not too far away. When the environment is as tense and uncertain as what the audience sees here; a family of (recently) three hiding out in the woods after a contagious disease has ravaged the world, viewers know that almost always, human nature ends up being more dangerous than the literal threat. The last thing this equation needs is more people in it. So in, inevitably, they come.
A24, the studio behind It Comes at Night and many other critical darlings of the decade (including Moonlight and Room), has drawn criticism in some quarters for marketing this film as more of a horror film than it actually is. But whatever faults the film might have, the world it sets up is unquestionably horrific. Not much is explained about the mysterious disease that has wiped out so many, but it’s consistently shown to be a pretty horrible fate. To avoid it, former teacher Paul (Joel Edgerton) has secluded his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in their country home, where they live out a survivalist existence. There may not be any monsters living there, but director Trey Edward Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels find the horror in the setting with ease, the characters are confined by its tight walls and low ceilings, sheeted in darkness,surrounded by woods that are far too quiet. It’s a claustrophobic location that makes the perfect environment for the story of paranoia being told. Traumatised by his grandfather’s execution, Travis is the point of view character here, the one desperate enough and naive enough to think things can arrive at some normality, especially after what starts as a home invasion leads to the family giving shelter to invader Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their toddler. Paul sets out the rules, his family brings the water, the newcomers bring the food and the more peacefully structured environment is a clear benefit to Travis. Just underneath the surface however, the grown ups are much less trusting. Paul tells his son they can’t trust the newcomers as they’re not family. Us or them. Get the shotguns ready.
Even alongside the talented older actors, Harrison Jr. is impressively interesting to watch. Frustrated and shy, he illuminates that Travis is just a few degrees more powerless than the adults around him, a little more in the dark, processing his grief through his grandfather’s dog, crawling around the house’s hiding places, grasping at the normality he overhears or stumbles into. As he starts chopping wood with Will and staring at Kim, literally the only woman for miles around that he isn’t related to, Travis even starts to get a little second-hand Oedipal, but of course, this little community can’t last. By nature, he feels the weight of this unrelenting world and its dangers in a slightly different way to the other characters and Harrison Jr. keeps the faint light flickering in his eyes that’s long since burnt out in Edgerton.
It Comes at Night is suitably gripping when it keeps things simple. The more vague it acts as a shortcut to add more dread, the more lost in the woods it becomes. Travis’ dreams and their more overt imagery are a ponderous element the film comes back to once or twice too often and the film’s efforts to create uncertainty through mystery can be frustrating when it’s asking questions that don’t really need answering and aren’t. Paul and Will have understandable reasons to have conflict. The elements of mystery are perhaps unnecessary when the story is this straightforward. It isn’t a horror film that will please everyone, with it’s slow pace and pensive nature. But even for viewers that are on board with those elements, there will be some left frustrated, knowing about as much about humanity’s distrustful nature and how destructive it can be at the end of this film as they were at the start of it. Or at the end of an episode of The Walking Dead. Still well-directed and acted, It Comes at Night may not go much further than the sum of its parts, but its effective and engrossing, planting a pit in the stomach that grows bigger and bigger until a heart-wrenching climax.(3.5 / 5)