Directed By: Trey Edward Shultz
Written By: Trey Edward Shultz
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough
What distinguishes It Comes at Night from ostensibly similar thrillers is not plot. In respect to story, the film has a rather run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic set-up: a family of three barricade themselves in their home following the outbreak of a hugely potent disease, weary of outsiders who may try to take their space. What writer/director Trey Edward Shultz, in his sophomore picture following Krisha, does in an effort to define his humble psycho-horror, is reject any easy means of courting a reaction. A concerted effort is employed to evade jump scares and shock cuts, perhaps a surprise given the title alone conjures images of one being suddenly ambushed in the dark—indeed, this misguided expectation has led to certain audiences feeling cold towards the film, and not in the intended way. It’s important to note that It Comes at Night is not a populist horror, it’s tension is founded more on atmosphere and a deep-seated dread, activated through a patient slow-burn build, rather than viscera or “action.”
Joel Edgerton plays Paul, the patriarch in said family of three, living in self-enforced captivity alongside wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and 17 year old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) Paul champions discipline and regiment as the keys to outlasting the disease which has claimed so much of the world. Exactly how much of the world we never learn. If one is to leave the house, it must be in a pair. Meals will be eaten twice daily, together. Night time excursions must be avoided if possible. When one begins to exhibit symptoms of the disease, they are to be promptly put down like a dog, then burnt, as seen in the film’s opening where Paul must dispose of his own father-in-law. Gas masks and gloves are common outfit. The chief separator between Paul’s family and the contaminated outside world is a red door, eerie in its betrayal of the film’s otherwise relentlessly drab palette, never to be opened unless required.
This strictly preserved routine is upended by the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbott), himself the father in a family of three, attempting to break into Paul’s house to find refuge. Upon earning Paul’s trust, the two families determine to pull their resources together. Will’s family moves in, and for a time there is normality, even laughter, before the union grows toxic.
Given the economical nature of Shultz’s direction, so much of It Comes at Night’s visceral energy stems from the performances. Joel Edgerton is, as he has so often been, powerful in his minimalism, never overstating his emotions, lending the film a real-world clout in the process. Edgerton is emblematic of one of the film’s major accomplishments, it’s veracity, despite its dealing in extraordinary circumstances. Shultz’s portrait of a near-dystopia is rooted in reality. There are no contrivances here, no forfeiture of rationality in favour of easy scares, so often a pit trap in horror. These are characters who are justified in their actions, regardless of their seeming heinousness. The realism of the film’s circumstance is further affirmed by its present day parallels. It Comes at Night is an examination of humanity at the end of its rope, of people who are trigger happy with their demonisations of their fellow man in times of fear, a notion of great sociopolitical currency.
Despite Edgerton’s top billing, It is Harrison Jr. who is tasked with the chief heavy lifting of the narrative, Travis serving as the film’s emotional centrepiece. With Paul occupied by preserving regiment and discipline, it becomes Travis through whom Shultz filters the emotional devastation of the predicament. Travis’ youth dictates he possess a more romantic, optimistic disposition, not yet ready to consign to the reigning cut-throat law of the land. But this purity is in the process of being spoiled. With each passing day Travis must not only front devastating atrocities, but he must grapple with their validity in a time and place where all social contracts have expired.
It’s from the mere verbal interplay of these characters that much of the subtle tension rises; a rare horror in which the action is interaction. An apparent contradiction regarding one character’s family make-up puts an arch in the brow for only a moment, before Shultz leaves the confusion in the air unresolved, as if to vaporise it for unconscious assimilation, taken in through our breathing and rooting itself in our unknowing bodies. It’s that brand of entrenched, perpetual uncertainty, so abundant in In Comes at Night, that allows the film to so easily creep in under the skin; it’s subtle, but in the long term it’s just as terrorising as any chainsaw wielding psychopath. There is something admirable in the way the film is able to cultivate such a lingering discomfort from what appear to be throwaway moments.
The disease itself is non-specific. What we know is that it scabs the skin, causes one to puke blood, is impossibly contagious, and even more lethal. The disease is but one in a long line of non-specifics in It Comes at Night. This a film with no affinity for answers, merely in raising questions, perhaps because with answers, irrespective of what they affirm, comes a comfort, a resolve. It Comes at Night opts to keep its viewer, much like the central house itself, in the dark, with mystery constantly stirring.
Said house harbors an acute sense of claustrophobia, with long blackened hallways and a stairway that seems to plunge into an abyss. Brian McOmber’s score adds further texture to Shultz’s brand of unrelenting disquiet. McOmber’s whiny, string heavy compositions evoke Mica Levi’s work in Jackie, employing that same ghostly moan quality that has a proclivity for tunnelling into the pit of one’s stomach.
Perhaps the greatest testament to It Comes at Night’s power is my intuitive reaction as the lights came on following its screening. For the briefest second I found myself looking at my fellow moviegoers with disgust, for the briefest second I saw them as savages who would do anything to keep their necks safe. So immersive was the film, so fully realised was its world and characters, that I was still locked into its mentality even after it had finished. It’s nothing fresh, but Trey Edward Shultz’s second feature has a unique ability to get inside the mind.