Though I avoid reading reviews of films before I write my own, I am not so vigilant about avoiding news and trailers. So, usually, I have some notion of what to expect from a movie before I see it. That was not the case, however, with Trey Edward Shults' It Comes At Night. In my hurry to see every movie opening this summer, I bought my ticket for the film without so much as reading a synopsis or cast list. I'd seen the poster, and had a vague notion that it was a horror film, but that's all I knew when I entered my late-night screening.
Which, as it turns out, was probably the best way to see It Comes At Night. There is still nothing quite so terrifying as the unknown, and this is a truth that Shults both explores (through his unsettling story) and exploits (through his taut, minimalist filmmaking). The result is a starkly simple film with surprising emotional and thematic resonance: it never quite becomes what we expect it to be, but slowly reveals itself to be something more genuinely harrowing and disturbing.
(By way of recommendation, it should say something about the quality and tone of the film if I tell you that the studio, A24, is responsible for such intimate, atmospheric suspense/horror films as The Witch, Green Room, Ex Machina, and Under the Skin. Along with more mainstream hits like Room and Moonlight, they've become one of our most reliable studios for intelligent films that can comfortably play the multiplexes and arthouses alike.)
Out of a sense of obligation, I'm going to go ahead and discuss the film a little further in this review (with a minimum of spoilers, I promise). But my real advice is to stop reading now. Don't even watch the trailer. Just go see the film.
It Comes At Night is a film that thrives on withholding information. Even the pronoun in the film's title is an evocative question, its antecedent an unknown, unseen, unnamed threat pounding at the door of our imaginations. Within the film, that door becomes literal: it is a red door, in a large, dark, ramshackle house in the woods. All other doors and windows in this house are barricaded from within: there is no other entrance, and no other exit.
There is a family within this house: a father, Paul (Joel Edgerton); a mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo); and a teen-age son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). There is an old dog, called Stanley. There was a grandfather, Bud (David Pendleton), but in the opening scene we watch the family say goodbye to him. They wear gas masks and gloves as they gather around this patriarch, whose mind is seemingly gone, and whose body is riddled with disease. Then, the father and son carry the old man through the red door, and into the woods behind the house, where they lay him in a shallow grave and gently shoot him in the head. Before they leave him, they douse his body with gasoline and set it alight.
What is happening here? We don't know, and the family, it seems, knows little more. Something has happened "out there," something bad. There is no electricity, or form of communication with the outside world. There is little food and water. And there is a disease, of unspecified nature, that Paul is determined to guard his family against at all costs.
The set-up is familiar, even trite. We feel we are on familiar ground: in a zombie movie, perhaps, or some other post-apocalyptic plague film in which a handful of lingering humans struggle to stay alive. But Shults balances the universality of the familiar scenario with painstaking specificity: though no one in the house talks much, these seem like real people, in a real place, and Shults observes them with quiet patience and almost terrible intimacy. The house, simultaneously both too large and too claustrophobic, is all silence and shadows, just isolated noises and flickering tendrils of insufficient light. The way Shults shoots this house—and the frightened, quiet family within it—it would almost be a relief to see the monsters that we keep expecting to burst through the walls, if only to break the silence and release the tension.
When something comes into this small, self-contained world, however, it is people, not monsters: one night another man, Will (Christopher Abbott), tries to open the red door from outside. Confronted by Paul, he claims to be looking for water to keep his own family alive. Though distrustful, soon Paul and Sarah have invited Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their little boy Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to join them in the house.
That's about as far as I'm willing to go in describing the plot of It Comes At Night, which becomes a film as much about the paranoid dynamics inside the house as whatever actual dangers lurk outside of it. The story is largely seen through the eyes of 17-year-old Travis, and Harrison is very good. (Without much dialogue, he conveys the rich, complicated, sometimes troubling inner world of this lonely teen-ager, afraid of the world but no doubt almost equally terrified to be trapped forever in a house with his parents.) Keough, too—so good in the Starz series The Girlfriend Experience—is excellent here, becoming a fragile bright light within the oppressive doom and gloom of the house. (Travis takes a particular, and understandable, shy interest in Kim: she is, after all, perhaps the last vaguely age-appropriate woman he will ever meet.) But it is Paul who stands at the center of the film: Edgerton has made taciturn strength a cottage industry, and here he channels it—powerfully, and often disturbingly—into a man who is desperate to protect his loved ones from the absolute doom that seems to be encroaching. (If I have one complaint about the film, it's that Ejogo's character ends up being given short shrift: Sarah is a powerful presence—and displays incredible strength when it's needed—but she is a little too silent of a presence, always existing somehow at the edges of the film.)
But the real star here is writer-director Shults, in his second feature. (I haven't yet seen his first, Krisha, but I will absolutely seek it out.) With very few ingredients—and, one suspects, very little budget—he has crafted an almost unbearably suspenseful film that feels realistic, and never formulaic. (I am not even sure it is appropriate to call it a "horror film." That depends a lot on your definition of horror, and what the "It" in that title might conjure for you.) The many unanswered questions—about the situation and the characters—become artfully placed shadows into which we can project our own terrors and anxieties. The grounded simplicity and small-scale of the film become a template around which we can build any number of political or allegorical narratives. (It is never discussed, for example, that Edgerton's well-intentioned but controlling patriarch is white, and that his wife and son are not; and yet somehow that subtext infuses everything that happens.)
Mostly, however, It Comes At Night is a dark, brutally intimate exploration of fear: not movie fear—of snarling monsters and things leaping out from the dark—but the real thing. By the time we have reached the devastating final shot, It Comes At Night has resonated in unexpected and disturbing ways: we went in expecting monsters, but the film has managed to tap into the sorts of fears—about the world, and the safety of our families, and the kinds of people we might be—that really keep us up at night.