Imagine the end of the world. Now imagine something much terrifying, as “It Comes at Night”. Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order that Paul (Joel Edgerton) has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge in their secluded fortress. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul. Suddenly what is inside that Paul finds himself running from. “It Comes At Night” is written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, and is rated R for brutal violence, disturbing imagery and adult language.
“It Comes at Night” is certainly a different breed all together when compared to the kind of shriek-fest that today’s youths are exposed to in horror cinema. A24 Productions is always a company that demands a wiser, albeit articulated kind of moviegoer to embrace their style of offerings, and there’s no film from them that will be more dissected than this one. I enjoyed this movie a lot, but I’m also someone who picks up on little clues and hints at exposition that is anything but blatant. This is a movie that demands its audience fill in the gaps from plots and sequences that can sometimes toe the line of cryptic storytelling, and because of such, this feels like the kind of film that will divide audiences right down the middle from what they were expecting and what they actually got. In my estimation, that isn’t a bad thing, because “It Comes at Night” begins as one kind of movie, then morphs into a totally different beast that depicts the very frailty of human interaction. On top of it, Shults visual palate is something that impressed me all around, building the tension between these two families that reaches a satisfying boiling point by the third act.
As a screenwriter, perhaps Trey’s most astonishing feat is that he takes a central plot and regresses it back midway through the movie to reduce it to a subplot of source for the real monster that has overtaken the screen. Considering that this is a story that takes place during an airborne epidemic, wiping out those who ingest it, Shults doesn’t tell us much about the origins or the rules that come with such a burden. Could this be considered a mistake? Possibly, but as the film progressed I found myself feeling less-and-less interested with this plague that has secluded those who remain unharmed by it, and more drawn to the cause-and-effects of choices big and small that haunt us with each passing day. As far as this concept is concerned, I compare this film a lot to “The Thing”, in that it shows us a variety of different characters, but tells us so little about them. Because of this, you, like the people in question, realize that this works to our disadvantage of seeing what lurks beneath the actions of kindness, and hinting at what possibly could be our worst nightmares coming true. Any parent’s first instinct is to protect their kind, so the actions in “It Comes at Night” feel like a car crash that we as an audience can see coming for a mile, but quietly embrace the inevitability of disaster just ahead. My one weakness in the script is during the final few minutes of the movie, after the heart-pounding conclusion, when the film’s air and momentum slowly sink away, instead of ending on the satisfying element of surprise. Those final establishing shots are alright, but it leaves the door wide open for audiences to give one of their famous “That’s it?” lines that can hinder the positives that previously shone. Visually too, these final few scenes feel sloppy, in that they are a series of cut scenes, instead of one cohesive unit. It ends the movie on a jumbled note that deviates from enticing visuals that constantly kept raising the bar for 90 minutes.
From a technical standpoint, Shults stakes his claim as a master visionary behind a camera of establishing shots that really paints the picture masterfully in each scene. Trey’s focus isn’t just conventional with cutting from character to character, but instead weaves in-and-out of each conversation with some pretty impressive long takes. Besides this, the house itself plays a pivotal role in displaying the distance between these two families. While it’s certainly nothing new or original, the panning out shots slowly reveal the kind of environments that slowly build the tensions not only of our characters, but our own ball of nerves that feel like they are on pines and needles because of the startling echoes of Brian McOmber’s impactful musical score. Brian is certainly no stranger to independent horror films, but here he provides such emphasis and terror in each volume-increasing note, playing against the sounds of silence that never fails to reach eleven on the dial. Your eyes and ears can easily play tricks on you with a presentation like this one, and that thought alone constantly kept my mind guessing for what’s going on slightly off-shot of what we’re focused on.
The performances are solid, particularly in Joel Edgerton who adds another layer to an already impressive resume of meaty diversity in the roles he selects. As Paul, we see an honorable man who will stop at nothing to protect his family despite the crumbling of the world around them that constantly provides a new test for them everyday. Paul is a leader by choice, and that decision means his character has to continuously do some things that we don’t like, but Edgerton’s every-man approach never shakes his moral response as anything other than understandable. Aside from Joel, the work of Kelvin Harrison Jr and Riley Keough also impressed me as characters spread out on both sides of these roommate families. Harrison confidently dominates a lot of screen time here, riding a wave of paranoia and teenage emotions that remind us he’s not as old as his father wants him to be. A subplot with Keough is just enough to move the mouse’s wheel in all of our minds, and hints at a butterfly effect that could unravel everything that has been built up. One scene in particular towards the end shows the kind of powerful release that Riley can give, and it felt easy to feel that pain with the horrible situation that leaves her stumbling for words. As far as crying on command goes, Keough in her prime is a hard-hitting heavyweight that tugs for the tears.
THE VERDICT – Regardless of what side of the proverbial fence that “It Comes at Night” casts you upon, one thing is for certain; Shults sculpting hands craft an unnerving environment of unrelenting consequence that always keeps you guessing. Led by excellent performances from a paper thin cast, as well as a lurid and entrancing musical composition, this grim atmospheric brought the scares well beyond that of a post-apocalyptic plot that doesn’t even begin to touch the surface of what really floats beneath. It proves that horror doesn’t have to be formulaic, and that the experimental side can still keep this genre fresh. True, the ending could trim a few minutes, but overall there’s too much to gush at to fault it too much for not concluding at the right time.