‘It Comes in the Night’ reworks genre stereotypes, comes away with a win
Trey Edward Shults’ meditation on paranoia “It Comes at Night” is a creeping thriller about a family held together by fear. Many filmmakers and storytellers have mined numerous post-apocalyptic scenarios to further explore the darkest corners of the human experience, and in that regard this picture prides itself in starring deeply into the abyss without blinking.
The film centers on a small family played by Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo as the parents Paul and Sarah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as their 17-year-old son Travis. Only a few days after having to quarantine Sarah’s elderly father from the house, later killing him and burning his body in the backwoods to ensure that the deadly disease he contracted can’t be further spread, a stranger from a few miles away named Will (Christopher Abbott) begs the family for food and refuge for himself and wife and toddler. After arguing with his hopeful wife and sternly vetting the newcomer, Paul decides to aid in this rescue effort. Will and his young wife, Kim (Riley Keough), are grateful for the food and sanctuary but the specter of tribalism and tragedy looms large over this stressful new dynamic.
Shults does a good job at establishing the emotional stakes of this story early on so that when even the smallest disturbances are breached, we are made as hyper-cautious as our worried protagonists. Like John Carpenter’s 1982 meditation on paranoia “The Thing,” this film puts the characters in a position where common decency is not the rational choice in close quarters. The overarching themes about stubborn masculinity and loss of humanity in the face of panic are not new to this socially conscious sci-fi sub-genre, but it’s the directorial precision and complicated performances that set this film apart from the mountains of forgettable virus/zombie movies that precede it.
Some have complained that the film’s marketing campaign by distributor A24 has been misleading. The title, as well as the jumpy trailer that focuses more on the viscera and eerie imagery than it does the movie’s core family drama, have lead some disappointed viewers to believe that this was supposed to be more conventional horror film. While this experience is thoroughly entrenched in bleak tragedy and the implications of the plot are fairly horrific, the movie doesn’t ramp up every scene toward a jump scare and there aren’t any monsters or cannibals scratching on the outside doors of the protagonists secluded home. What that said, there is a strange omniscient point of view that hangs over the drama as it unfolds and it sometimes feels like a demonic hex that’s been put upon this sensitive circumstance.
“It Comes at Night” may not a traditional horror programmer that people thought they were getting but it is very dark film that is meant to challenge our views on human empathy and familial loyalties. Cinematographer Drew Daniels uses minimal lighting set-ups to sculpt his subject out of ink-black darkness, and his slow push ins on red doors and elongated hallways recalls the nightmarish imagination of David Lynch and monumental intimidation of Stanley Kubrick. I can’t say that the subject matter here is all together new or innovative and as a thriller the movie’s reveals are somewhat predicted, but the filmic craft exemplified and the actor’s dedication to their character’s emotional motivations elevate the stock premise into being a taught exercise in suspicion.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.