Year: 2017
Director(s): Trey Edward Shults
Writer(s): Trey Edward Shults
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 91 mins

Synopsis: Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, a man has established a tenuous domestic order with his wife and son, but this will soon be put to test when a desperate young family arrives seeking refuge. (Source)

It can be said that we never know who we are until we’re left with nothing, when desperation sets in and we fight for what little we have left. This is the existential dread that director Trey Edward Shults preys upon in It Comes at Night. Whereas any other survival horror flick would’ve centered upon material necessity, Shults aims bigger, exploring who we become when the rules that keep us in check have been tragically stripped away. Though the film does play with genre elements, it comes alive through its layered portrait of familial drama, earning our empathy with realistic character dilemmas, and questioning how far anyone would go to save the ones they love. Shults’ film is progressively hard to watch, a paranoia-soaked story that resonates with intimacy and gripping performances. What we see here is the definition of modern horror, not something that mishandles cheap ghouls or jolts, but a story that crawls under our skin and infects us like a virus sent straight from the abyss of our greatest fears.

In the aftermath of an unknown, crippling world event, Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) scrape by, confining themselves to their home and adhering to a strict set of rules. Some rules are meant to allow a sort of normalcy, but others are meant to keep them alive from the unknown outer world, such as one that prevents them from going outside after dark. Their home only has one way in and out, a foreboding red door that feels like a frail barrier between them and a threat they know nothing about. Their tenuous survival-by-isolation is threatened when a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) tries to break into their house one night, desperate for refuge and supplies for his own family. After a series of tests, Paul and Sarah commit to Will’s story and allow his family to take up residence within their home. The partnership seems to go well at first, but a series of coincidences and mounting tension soon make way for doubt and distrust, putting the lives of both families in danger.

The brilliance of Shults’ story, is that his post-apocalyptic premise is a gateway into more personal threats, building his plot around the day-to-day moments we take for granted, and how quickly kindness can crumble when we can’t maintain trust or common decency. What we get is a dive into deep-rooted fear, implying that nothing is scarier than the idea of loss, and that it’s very easy for this nagging fear to turn into an irrevocable action. Taking a minimal plot drenched in dread, Shults systematically tests the bonds of each family as they try to stay sane in the face of an unknown threat. The film’s abstract dangers are made present by Shults’ immersive execution, never allowing his characters or the viewer a moment of escape from the paranoia that festers beneath the surface. To achieve this, Shults frames almost every scene in long takes, holding the camera over his characters’ faces as they contemplate or view something horrible off screen. It all equates to a microcosm of modern society, a self-contained eco-system of fear, where evil is borne of good intentions and an inability to see the bigger picture.

With such a focus on intimacy, Shults’ film shines as a performances piece – there are no weak links in this small cast, and everyone brings their all. As the home’s defacto leader, Joel Edgerton makes Paul a weary but understanding man. He’s been hardened by what’s happened, but makes an effort to make sure that kindness and understanding have equal footing. Edgerton brings so much of the film’s tension to life in a performance where less is infinitely more. As Paul’s wife, Sarah, Carmen Ejogo gets her fair share of psychological struggle, trying to hold things together with a quiet, reserved strength. If there’s someone who comes close to stealing the show, however, it’s Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Travis, Paul and Sarah’s son. A lot of the film is told from Travis’ perspective, making the story very much an awakening for him, and allowing an innocent, perspective on what’s happening. Harrison is charming and takes things where we don’t expect. Christopher Abbott is unwittingly an element of chaos, making Will a character that keeps us on our toes. There’s an ambiguity to him that is hard to shake, but also an undeniable layer of gentleness that makes him welcome. Will’s wife, Kim, gets to interject a few moments of levity thanks to Riley Keough, whose character shares a humane scene with Travis.

It Comes At Night is a slow burn, but gripping from start to finish, posing perhaps the most important questions of them all. What do we really need to survive? Is it food, water, shelter, or conscience, compassion and trust. The way we choose to live our lives has great impact, and an ambitious thread that Shults pulls upon until it frays and leaves us tangled in ruins. Shults’ latest is blindingly confident and mature, understanding completely that what we can’t see is scarier than what we do, and that these unsaid dangers only matter because of the weight that his characters invest in them. Taking heady concepts that most genre films can’t understand, the film builds to an almost unbearable final act, one that leaves us unable to breathe and with an ending that washes over with damning precision.

SG