Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
If writer-director Trey Edward Shults's debut feature, Krisha, plunged into the headspace of a psychologically damaged middle-aged woman during a family gathering; then his followup It Comes at Night views a disintegrating family unit from the perspective of 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) trying to adapt to his claustrophobic living environment inside a remote cabin in the woods. It's primarily through this vantage point that we come to grasp the family's dire situation, even as Shults purposefully withholds information regarding the broader scope of what appears to be some type of biological outbreak.
Set in an apocalyptic near future, It Comes at Night opens with a mercy killing of an old man (David Pendleton), covered in lesions and sores, who is carried out into the woods by Travis's father, Paul (Joel Edgerton). We come to learn that the man is in fact the family patriarch and father of Paul's wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). How he came to be ill is never explained, but Paul assures his family, as Shults does the audience, that this killing was necessary in order to stop the spread of the mysterious disease. Eventually, a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the boarded-up family home hoping to find supplies for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and young child, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). After a thorough interrogation, Paul decides to accompany Will to retrieve his family and thus combine resources, since Will has livestock and Paul a safe place to live and plenty of water. Working with cinematographer Drew Daniels, Shults initially conjures a sense of disquieting dread simply through the use of slowly gliding camera movements and natural interior lighting. The off-kilter sound design is equally effective; with distant dog barks, squeaking floorboards, and a menacing score by Brian McOmber all informing the uneasy feeling that something is just outside that heavily secured red door at the end of the hallway.
Like It Follows and The Witch, It Comes at Night fits snugly into the A24-approved realm of art-house horror; minimalistic genre exercises which attempt to subvert common tropes primarily through mood, atmosphere, and a rigorous visual aesthetic. The best thing that can be said about Shults's film is that he wisely tones down the stylistic tics and show-offy camera movements which informed Krisha; a film which, despite a galvanizing central performance, felt arch and phony. Though the writer-director is very skilled at knowing where to place his camera and how to use silence in order to generate tension, his gifts as a writer and story-teller are almost entirely absent. For here is a film in which obvious craftsmanship cannot paper over a simplistic narrative where archetypal characters don't so much withhold exposition as behave in faux-naturalistic ways which tells us nothing about who they are or what they want, aside from the obvious. What at first seemed novel about the film; the lack of backstory, the determined minimalism, the apolitical milieu, the resistance to offering up explanations about the state of the world, soon becomes a frustrating weakness since it's clear Shultz is simply making another one of those relentlessly bleak "metaphor horror" movies where everything hinges on a centralized theme rather than actually digging into what frightens us.
The fear of death, which no one can escape, is at the heart of It Comes at Night, which announces itself as a horror vehicle, but other than a few evocatively photographed nightmare sequences in which Travis wanders about, Shults seems generally uninterested in the visceral thrills of the genre. Instead, he's attempting to fashion a meditation on grief, paranoia, and letting go of the ones you love wrapped in a flimsy gauze of pop horror iconography. Sadly, he also strands a very talented cast who deserve more fully realized characters. Though Edgerton is very good at projecting a stoic resilience, he's essentially playing the over-protective father will do whatever it takes to protect his family, and cannot transcend Shult's weak writing, which involves a lot of him saying things like "family is all that matters." Meanwhile, Ejogo has a maternal warmth and strength as a performer, but she's sadly given very little to do other than look overly concerned and whisper mumbled lines to her emotionally traumatized son. And so on it goes, with Abbot playing the mysterious stranger whom the family may not be able to trust, and Keough relegated mostly to being the object of Travis's teenage affections. In fact, Harrison Jr. gives by far the best performance in the film; mainly because Shults seems genuinely interested in Travis's psychological fragility, but also because the actor brings glimmers of an inner life that the rest of the character's sorely lack.
In fashioning yet another post-apocalyptic narrative about a close knit unit of survivors whose world is thrown into disarray when strangers appear, It Comes at Night is much too familiar plot-wise to truly surprise and far too ponderous in its construction to be thrilling. What one is left with, after all the artful tracking shots and lamp-lit compositions, is little more than moody ambiguity at the expense of depth and yes, the kind of gonzo electricity that only a potent horror film can provide.