Movie Review: It Comes at Night
By Matthew Huntley
June 15, 2017
The characters: father, Paul (Joel Edgerton); mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo); teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.); dog, Stanley.
Their situation: a fatal and apparently worldwide epidemic has broken out and forced this family to quarantine themselves in a remote cabin in the woods, where they live each day solemnly and with extreme caution, boiling water, rationing food and being wary of any outsiders. The only way in and out of the cabin is through front door, for which Paul holds the only key.
Recently, Sarah's father, Bud (David Pendleton), developed symptoms of the illness and has seemingly reached a point of no return. Paul and Travis carry him into the woods, end his life officially, and burn the corpse. Afterward, life goes on; Paul, Sarah, Travis and Stanley will continue to endure just as they have for some time.
One night, a stranger enters the house. Travis finds him - a young father named Will (Christopher Abbott), and Paul, automatically assuming Will has evil intentions, knocks him out and ties his hands up behind a tree. But Will explains he was just looking for supplies to provide for his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Eventually, Paul comes to trust Will enough that he allows him and his family to move into the cabin, although he remains suspicious of their motives, as do we.
This is the simple setup for Trey Edward Shults' It Comes At Night, a horror-thriller that's less concerned about providing answers to traditional plot questions and more about creating tension and showing the dark and survivalist sides of human nature. It's not about events as much as it is behavior and the strain imposed upon us, either by ourselves or by circumstances, when fear and uncertainty prove overwhelming. If someone was to ask me what It Comes At Night is about (it's not always obvious, which is refreshing), I would say it's about anxiety, and not about the subject of anxiety, but how it makes us feel the anxiety of the characters.
The question you may be asking is, “How could a film that makes us feel anxious also be entertaining?” Perhaps it's not in the traditional sense, because It Comes At Night is certainly not a “happy” or “pleasant” film to watch. But it's effective in the way it grabs ahold of us, winds us up, and makes us empathize with the characters' situation, which is the constant expectation that something dark, violent or sinister is about to happen.
Our conduit into this distressing tale is the likable Travis, through whom we see most of the story unfold and with whom we most identify. We really feel for him as a teenager who's been suddenly thrust into adulthood just when he should be coming of age. On one level, he has a budding sexuality and just wants to play with his dog; on another, he's having bizarre dreams about, among other things, his dead grandfather (hence the “it” coming at night) and wondering if he's getting sick. What Travis experiences and what he witnesses the others do may seem like standard horror fare, but Shults treats the material, even the ghoulish moments, with sincerity and sensitivity so that it grows into something viscerally and emotionally gripping.
Shults' repertoire is short by Hollywood standards, but It Comes At Night would have us believe he's an industry veteran. Here is a filmmaker who utilizes all his filmic resources - locations, sets, lighting, sound, actors' performances, editing - to generate a devastating and disturbing effect. Not one of these elements goes unaccounted for and I recognized them throughout, including the sounds of short, strained breaths; close-ups of characters' shifting eyes to suggest mistrust; quick cuts that induce confusion and paranoia; a faint lamp slowly bringing light to a long, dark hallway. Shults puts us in these woods, in this cabin, and next to these people, and we feel what they feel, including the aftermath of a riveting and mournful climax.
I have a feeling It Comes At Night will frustrate a lot of viewers because it lacks concrete answers and doesn't venture down a path we expect. We're so used to long-winded exposition that explains everything we think we need to know and have invariably come to believe this is an essential ingredient to a meaningful story. But we often forget that what truly makes for a good story is whether the storyteller can fulfill his or her intention of making us feel “what it's like to [insert feeling here],” which could range from “what's it's like to be a superhero,” to “what it's like to not have a date for the prom,” to “what it's like to be a soldier in World War II.” You name it. The more sincerely the filmmaker can realize this, the more powerful the outcome, and in the case of It Comes At Night, we very much come to know what it's like to feel the anxiety and psychosis of being trapped in a house with people you don't fully trust. It does this so well, in fact, it's scary, which, in this case, is the point.