When the lights came up at my screening of It Comes at Night, director Trey Edward Shults’ second feature film, I was stuck to my seat. I was emotionally pulverized not only by the very last shot, but almost everything that came before it. This is a movie that gives no quarter. Do not look for solace here. The film is bleak and grim, and it will test your resolve. If you’re willing to take the journey, It Comes at Night will also reward you with ruminations on a variety of themes, including trust, paranoia, and the idea of community. Be warned, though, you might not like its conclusions about any of them.
The movie is set after some sort of plague has befallen the earth. We meet a family: Paul, Sarah, their teenage son Travis, and the family dog, Stanley. There is one other member of the family, Sarah’s father, Bud, but when we meet him he is already sick from whatever disease has ravaged the outside world. What Paul is forced to do in the first five minutes of the movie to end Bud’s suffering expertly establishes the tone of what’s to follow in the next 85 minutes.
Everything about Shults’ picture, which he wrote and directed, is an exercise in economical storytelling. No second is wasted here. He creates an apocalypse on a personal scale. We never see a frame of what’s going on outside the secluded, fortified home of Paul, Sarah, and Travis, but the desperation of this world-wide event seeps into every scene. Shults should charge millions to teach classes on using tone to build worlds; directors of summer blockbusters should pay it.
Though not a perfect situation, the family has created a relatively happy existence through cooperation and caution at their home in the country. That all changes late one night, when an intruder breaches the only entrance to the house. Paul subdues the man, and ties him to a tree outside until morning. Upon interrogation, we learn this man’s name is Will, and he says he meant no harm. He thought the house was empty, and was just searching for food and fresh water for his wife, Kim, and their toddler, Andrew. Paul is suspicious of this story, but he agrees to help when Will offers to share their livestock, a goat and some chickens, in exchange for shelter and water.
Shults examines collaborative community through this initial, uneasy truce. Along the way, he manages to explore other human traits in a way that’s seamless and masterful, especially considering the relatively brief running time of It Comes at Night. Travis is the channel for a lot of that exploration. He is still grieving for his dead grandfather, and has nightmares where the old man stares at him with black eyes, covered in the sores that are a hallmark of the plague’s infection.
Sex and death are often times inextricably linked in the horror genre, and Shults adds to that legacy in a unique way. Several times, after Will and Kim “move in” with the family, we see Travis in the attic surreptitiously listening in on the couple. In one scene, neither Travis nor Kim can sleep, and they have a late-night conversation in the kitchen. It’s clear Travis is developing a crush on the young mother. It’s interesting to consider that, besides his mother, this might be the first woman he’s ever been in close proximity to, depending on how long ago the plague decimated society. These swirling ideas of grief, sex, and fear are used to terrifying effect in a sequence midway through the film where Kim comes to Travis’ bedroom, but things take an unexpected turn.
Fear – what I suspect is the “It” of the title – becomes the all-encompassing focus of the last act. The two families have come to trust each other, in their own way, and life is made easier for all of them as they share chores and responsibilities. The fragility of this arrangement, the joke of it really, is highlighted when one simple act brings their entire make-shift society crashing down around them. Travis wakes one night to find Andrew in Bud’s old room, crying from a nightmare. After Travis returns Andrew to Will and Kim’s room, he finds the front door open. Earlier in the film, Stanley the dog got loose and ran into the woods. Now he’s back, lying in the doorway, obviously sick.
How did the door come to be open? Could Andrew have opened it in his sleep? Will quickly points out the toddler can barely reach the lock. That question is never answered. It’s the one weakness of the film; on closer examination it seems more like a MacGuffin, put in place to allow the climax to unfold. But the eerie tone throughout, and the razor-sharp suspense of what happens when trust is broken, make it a forgivable one.
It Comes at Night feels like a movie for our current geo-political situation. The tenuous community the two families forge can easily be seen as a microcosm of our interconnected world. Shults paints a picture of just how brittle our societal structure is and how easily it can break down, as if we didn’t already know. He does all that while also delving effortlessly into other facets of the human psyche. He’s made a film that may look stripped down and simple on the surface, but has a deep thematic complexity.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- This movie is relentless. The world Shults creates is vivid, terrifying, and haunting.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The cast in It Comes at Night are all splendid. Especially good are Joel Edgerton as Paul, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as his son, Travis.
- Brian McOmber's score is particularly effective, and adds to the unease of the whole movie.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
I missed posting a review last week (I was out of town for a wedding. You know, actually experiencing life for a change, instead of just living it vicariously by staring at a screen), so I have a bonus one all queued up and ready to go. I'll be looking at The Hero, a new movie starring Sam Elliott. I'll be posting it in the next day or so.