Director: Trey Edward Shults
Runtime: 97 minutes
Clear-cut answers are hard to come by in It Comes at Night. A catastrophe of some sort, manifesting in the form of a bubonic plague-esque infection, has done its damage. And based on the boarded up home of the main characters, it seems that people aren't too keen on socializing outside of their family. The story opens with a mercy killing, the kind we've seen in any number of post-apocalyptic films and TV shows. But what follows, despite some eventual bloodletting, is hardly standard issue fare. Despite the looming sense of the unknown, the film is ultimately a chamber drama that happens to unfold in a nightmarish scenario. What need is there for answers to big questions when uncertainty is sitting right next to you at the dinner table?
Any given festival circuit is full of splashy debut features. Trey Edward Shults had his at last year's Sundance, with the nervy psychological drama Krisha. Despite its shoe-string budget, the film did what any cinematic calling card should do: introduce potential. Following up on said potential is another matter entirely. For Houston-born Shults, however, lightning has actually managed to strike twice. If anything, it has struck with even more intensity than before. It Comes at Night retains the strengths of Krisha, while applying them to a more established budget and a cast of professional performers. But the film is not exactly a major leap forward for Shults, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it's a lateral move, taking on similar issues and themes, but merely restating them in a new setting and with newfound luxury. It may seem like overkill to attempt a second impression after your first went over so well, but in the end, Shults' sophomore effort more than justifies itself.
It Comes at Night does not immediately register as a work derived from personal experience. With its apocalyptic setting, genre demands appear to be at the forefront of the film's concerns (they're certainly behind the marketing campaign). But despite the long shots of a camera gliding down a dark hallway and some gory dream sequences, Shults' film is anything but predictable. There are trace elements of what we would expect from this sort of scenario (blood dripping from a mouth, the ravages of a horrific infection, things going bump in the night), and they are indeed disturbing. But all of that pales in comparison to what It Comes at Night pulls off in its final act, which is a bleak, bruising, and haunting as anything in recent memory.
The mercy killing that opens the film is not that of an acquaintance or ally, but of a father and grandfather. It is a death hastened out of necessity, but one that also reduces a household from a family of four to a family of three. There is magnitude in this kind of loss. Each person in the house now has one person fewer to rely on. Or talk to. Or laugh with. And so it's no surprise that when Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) encounter a new person, they immediately go on edge.
The new person in question is Will (Christopher Abbott), caught as he tries to break in to Paul and Sarah's home for food and supplies. Like Paul, Will is a husband and father. His wife and child (Riley Keough and Griffin Faulkner) are 15 miles away, and desperately waiting for him to return. "Have you seen anyone else?" asks Paul. "No," says Will. He could be telling the truth. He could be lying. If it's the latter, what might he be concealing? It Comes at Night rarely answers questions, even when you might beg for it to give just a shred of evidence in either direction. But in Shults' capable hands, it matters gravely to the characters, but doesn't hinder engagement for the viewer.
Initially, the films seems lopsided in structure. After the ominous beginning, Shults dials down the dread and suspense, and punctures the mood with bits of levity and charm. One montage is (relatively) joyous, observing two different families working and learning together. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Shults had forgotten what type of story he was telling. But the film's steadily unnerving progression ultimately reveals that Shults and his collaborators have known precisely how to play this all from the get go. No matter how innocent or kind a person seems, few things arouse suspicion like a story that fails to fully add up. All it takes is one stray remark, and the atmosphere in the house undergoes an irrevocable shift.
Aided by a dynamic score (by Brian McOmber) and claustrophobic photography, Shults is able to conjure up a feeling of imminent disaster that could plausibly stem from supernatural or mundane sources. The ramifications of either are terrifying. If there is some boogeyman out there, then the world is even more frightening than we thought. If it's something totally normal, then it only illustrates how far humanity has fallen. An early scene involves a montage of closeups of a print of Bruegel the Elder's "Triump of Death," filled with images both surreal and ordinary. They exist side by side, feeding into each other. Is there really some singular entity out there to fear? It doesn't matter. The mere notion that there could be is all it takes for paranoia to spread.