It Comes at Night **** / *****
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults.
Written by: Trey Edward Shults.
Starring: Joel Edgerton (Paul), Christopher Abbott (Will), Carmen Ejogo (Sarah), Riley Keough (Kim), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Travis), Griffin Robert Faulkner (Andrew).
Trey Edward Shults wasted little time making his follow-up to last year’s remarkable Krisha – one of the year’s great debut films. That film was almost an emotional horror film, about a woman returning to her family for the first time in years, trying to bury her demons (addiction and mental issues) and reconnect – and failing spectacularly. With It Comes At Night, he has made a more traditional horror film – although it’s still a film about family more than anything else – a horror film without a villain, but almost unbearable tension. It may well frustrate viewers looking for something bloodier, or that spells everything out for you – which this film refuses to do. While it is more clearly a genre picture, where Krisha was not, it isn’t exactly like most other horror films.
Almost all of the film takes place in a boarded up house deep in the woods – and those woods themselves. Father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and 17 year old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) – live there by themselves, and follow very strict rules about going in and out of the house, and two door system that creates an airlock of sorts to protect them from the outside world. We in the first scene why such precautions are necessary – as Paul and Travis take an elderly man, coughing blood, into the woods – Travis tells him “I’ll miss you Grandpa”, before Paul wraps him in a carpet, shoots him in the head, and sets the body on fire. A stranger arrives at the house – as strangers always do in these movies – but the precautions protect the family, and Paul is able to capture the man trying to break in. This is Will (Christopher Abbott), who will tell Paul that he’s just trying to look after his own family – his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew – living themselves in an abandoned house some 50 miles away. Paul decides to help Will and his family – bringing them all back to his place. But Paul never really does trust them – there are some things in their story that could be the kind of innocent mistake anyone could make, but could also mean that he’s being lied to. All we know about the outside world at this point is that some sort of disease has wiped out most people – so while Paul may be paranoid, he also may well he right.
Shults is a talented filmmaker, and while It Comes at Night isn’t quite as visually daring as Krisha was (that film, had strange elements that recall Lynch, Cassavetes and Kubrick in one film), it is more consistent this time around. He makes great use of the darkness in the film – especially around the nightmare sequences we see Travis experience, or his moments when he spies on the other in the house (not in a perverted way). Even when they are outside – and they’re only every outside in the day – things are exactly bright – the trees cast shadows over everyone and everything out there.
The cast is uniformly excellent, even if for the most part, everyone is paying archetypes more than complicated characters – the stern, strict father, the more loving, sympathetic mother, the possibly dangerous stranger, his beautiful, alluring wife, the precocious child. The film is seen through the eyes of Travis, although he’s probably the quietest of the characters, observing everything, and saying very little – not even revealing the nightmares that haunt him to anyone.
It Comes at Night lacks the complexity of Shults’ Krisha – mainly because we don’t have a character like that at the center of this film this time around. That was a remarkable character and performance. This is more of a director’s showcase – a sustained act of building and maintaining tension for 98 minutes, because there’s barely a moment in the film that isn’t intense, that you aren’t on the edge of your seat. That Shults quietly is able to sneak some of emotions into the film when you weren’t looking – so that the ending of the film, although inevitable, still hits you harder than you thought it would, is remarkable – and shows that Shults, who still isn’t even 30, truly is one of the indie filmmakers to watch for in the future.
It Comes at Night is not quite what I was expecting from the director of Krisha, and it won’t be quite what audiences thinking they’re going to see a horror film are likely to expect either. In this case, that’s a good thing. I cannot wait to see what Shults does next.