It Comes at Night is an intense, patient and disturbing indie misleadingly marketing itself as horror.
I quit on The Walking Dead about halfway into Season 5 for its repetitive storytelling and monotonous pace, but there was a time that I considered it a good show for some of the same reasons I now consider it dull. The most interesting and intense elements of that show were always the primal, survivalist instincts of some of the characters, how far they were willing to go to survive. In those select moments, some of the characters revealed a side of themselves that was more terrifying than any brainless and undead zombie could ever be. The root of why we fear zombies in the first place because of what they represent; the loss of sanity, remorse, and control.
It Comes at Night, director Trey Edward Shults’ new suspense drama, reminded me of one of those more affecting Walking Dead episodes. It explores the themes of human desperation through art house filmmaking, a potent and fascinating combination that certainly will not be for everyone. It fits right into the A24 model in that the film doesn’t try to please its audience in a generic genre format, but instead letting a talented auteur leave the audiences’ skin crawling in different ways than expected.
Some sort of post-apocalyptic world is our setting. We’re never outright told what destroyed humanity, but it appears to be some sort of contagious virus that infects people who are in your proximity. Because of this, Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live an extremely protective lifestyle. They take shelter in a massive, boarded-up home in the woods, frequently wear gas masks and gloves when working outside, and never go out at night. The outside comes to them one night, when Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home. He claims that he thought the house was abandoned, seeking supplies for his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their toddler son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Paul reluctantly allows them to live in their home, but there’s distinct, underlying sense of distrust in the air that seeps into every conversation, waiting to either explode or dissipate.
Those looking for traditional horror here will be left immensely disappointed, as most of the gore and so-called scares in the film are man-made. Whatever caused this apocalypse is only seen sparingly, a looming threat off to the side that rears its ugly head only as a final “screw-you” to the characters. Instead, Shults internalizes the horror, confining its characters within the landscape of a house that he thoroughly establishes through Travis’ late night escapades. You know every nook and cranny of this place by the end of the film, like you’re trapped in there with everyone. It Comes at Night has all the makings of a haunted house film without any sort of ghouls or ghosts involved.
The film requires a patience of audience members to establish where it’s headed, moving at a snail’s pace towards the climax. It’s a slow, slowwww burn, as even the camera movement seems to be tiptoeing throughout the dimly lit house. I admit, it tested my patience at points, as I wondered where Shults was going with all of this. Even when it does reach the climax, It Comes at Night will almost certainly anger a lot of general audience members looking for some sort of dramatic crescendo. Personally, the film’s horror came from how little actually goes on in the film, making even the slightest little bump in the road add to the paranoia. It starts as a falsity in someone’s story, then an argument over who left a door open, then unproven speculation derived through the sounds in the thin walls. This makes the actual violence even more powerful. It’s like a terrifying version of the reality show Big Brother.
Edgerton seems to have cornered the market on indie everyman roles, and he’s typically excellent as a desperate man just trying to do what’s best for his family in an impossibly grim situation. Harrison Jr., featured in The Birth of a Nation and last year’s Roots remake, gets the most substantial role out of the supporting cast, and is basically the protagonist of the film. His scenes, frequently intruded upon by dreamlike vignettes and the film’s creepiest imagery, is hard to decode, but Harrison’s talent shines through.
Much like last year’s The Witch, I find I appreciate It Comes at Night more than I enjoyed it. Its a transfixing watch, and one that I’d recommend to those who are willing to choose atmosphere over jumps. If anything, it puts Shults on my radar as a talent to watch moving forward. His sophomore effort has the same kind of confidence that I see in Jeremy Saulnier or Jeff Nichols. If you’re a patient viewer and like this sort of film, It Comes at Night is worth the bump in the dark.