Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Running Time: 107 mins
Synopsis: Living isolated in the wilderness after an unspecified virus has apparently decimated the planet, a family carves out a tense domestic existence. But when a desperate young family arrive at their doorstep, suspicion, fear and paranoia puts all of them to the test.
It Comes at Night has a suffocating amount of tension. Atmospheric tension, familial tension, neighbourly tension, sexual tension, it is all there framed within that most popular of settings, the apocalypse. An audience and creative obsession, due in no small measure to our strange desire to look at our own mortality. Not to mention how such dire societal destruction exposes who we are as humans down to the most basest of instincts. Most if not all ask the question “how far would you go to protect yourselves?”
Unlike The Walking Dead and its ilk It Comes at Night never makes clear just what has caused the breakdown of society. The opening scene offers a terrifying glimpse at just how destructive this virus is, all skin lesions, blood spewing and deep groaning. We see this as it befalls Bud, father to Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah. Seemingly a distant husk, she and her son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) say their goodbyes before he is taken out into the forest, shot and burnt. It is a riveting sequence, showcasing the intense emotion and desperation these people have found themselves in. Events surrounding this unknown virus are deliberately left ambivalent, with only vague hints as to cities breaking down and the depletion of resources. It is even half suggested that the virus triggers a zombie like hunger but once again this is only ever alluded to. As with previous apocalyptic scenarios, the what and the how are secondary to the character trials it inspires.
Writer/director Trey Edward Shults, a relative newbie with only one other film (Krisha) to his name, forgoes the usual large ensembles for a tightly focused glimpse at two families. Joel Edgerton taps once more into his wired masculinity to play Paul, patriarch to wife Sarah and son Travis. Holed up in a massive wilderness house, boarded up and creaky, he has constructed a warped domesticity in which no one leaves at night, or goes out alone and with him being the only person to carry the keys to the singular exit. The film never explicitly details how long they have been sealed away for, but the comfort they display within their routine makes clear it has been some time. Edgerton and Ejogo are a quietly affectionate couple although the isolation seems to have placed a pressure on their intimacy. But is in Travis in which their years of confinement have taken their toll. A seemingly calm and reflective soul, but one who has a tendency to listen to his parents talk at night from a hidden cubbyhole and suffer from horrific dreams. These nightmares are a little overused throughout the film but are primarily the source of the films few scares (contrary to the marketing this is not a horror film), and add a palpable surrealism to proceedings.
Travis’s eccentricities are placed under even greater strain when an unexpected visitor attempts to break in. Will (a distantly vulnerable Christopher Abbott) is desperate to find supplies for his wife and young son, not expecting to find this family hidden in the woods. A suspicious bond forms between the two men, each wary of the others intentions throughout, friendly but willing to murder the other in order to protect their own. Bringing his family back into Paul’s homestead brings with it a sense of quiet unity, helping each other to make food and fix the house up. Shults expertly builds the tension to near deafening levels here, you know something is going to come to divide these two families. Will it be an outbreak of the virus amongst them? Or a paranoid lust to protect their own above all else? Or even in an unexpected plot beat, the sexual infatuation Travis has for Will’s wife Kim (an underused Riley Keough)? When the inevitable release does come it is, like the rest of the film, played with token ambivalence.
This desire to keep things hidden from the audience may frustrate those who wish to have hard answers, but it works to drive the paranoia levels as high as possible. You are kept as on edge as the players in the tale, Shults utterly confident in how to construct a tightly wound human horror. The themes prevalent are familiar (after SO many end of the world pieces how can they not) but it is the execution that gives It Comes at Night its power. The score is chillingly foreboding, the sound work a clanging mix of haunting silences and deafening groans, set-pieces are few but land with a forceful control to sucker you in. An early in the day journey through the forest by car is thrillingly shot, especially the way in which Shults uses the camera and the rear-view mirror to float between Will and Paul, suspicion building between them before an unexpected third party shows up. In fact the entire film is a masterwork of camera placement, whether gliding through the darkening corridors, sweat fostering on your brow as it does so, or the sharply blocked one-on-one dialogue scenes.
There will be some who baulk at the preference of character over plot momentum, and the tension reaches some unbearable levels, which for the patience lacking generation will probably result in bores more than thrills. But if you’re willing to embrace it, this is challenging cinema. No character is truly readable, each prone to unpredictability and fear. This is a film to chew on, to let wash over you, to make you question your own humanity and allegiances. It is exciting genre filmmaking, with an ending that leaves you shaken, dumbfounded and almost relieved. This may be the apocalypse as we know it, but the eyes we see it through are original, refreshing and primed for big things.
Verdict: A tense-filled calling card for a director capable of crafting rich complex characters, gripping set-pieces and pointed themes. It Comes at Night is familiar but masterfully executed genre cinema.