There are many unsettling occurrences in the darkly disturbing new film "It Comes At Night." This tale of an isolated family fighting for survival in the midst of a horrifying albeit unspecified infestation incorporates ghastly closeups of the infected, sudden standoffs with aggressive attackers, and long, tense passages when characters creep along dark hallways terrified of what's waiting behind the next door. Yet amid these classic horror tropes it's a quiet, commonplace exchange between two characters that's unexpectedly chilling: in the midst of a conversation one fumbles to clarify an earlier remark that might be a simple misstatement or could be a tactical lie. The other silently calculates what to believe, weighing the impact that a wrong choice will have on the safety of his family and the fragile bubble of security they've built against the dangers outside. It's a startling moment of perspective on this new, savage world where trusting the wrong person can have life or death consequences.
"It Comes At Night" is strategically parsimonious with details so it takes some time to piece together the basics of the story - and some questions go intentionally unanswered. Paul (Joel Edgerton, "Black Mass"), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo, "Alien: Covenant") and their teenaged son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr., "Birth of a Nation") are surviving in their remote, boarded-up house, windows barricaded against some threat from the outside world. In the opening we see another family member suffering from a mysterious infection, with sad and terrible consequences. Slowly we learn what the relationships are, the gravity of what's happening in the world, and how it impacts this small, close family. The cause, however, remains tantalizingly unclear.
Tucked away in their second-floor bedrooms one night the family hears sounds of a break-in below. A man has torn through the barricades and made his way inside. Paul employs a brutal but necessary tactic to test the intruder for signs of infection, then questions him about his circumstances. He's Will (Christopher Abbott, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"), and he seems bewildered to have found people living in what appeared to be an abandoned house. He says he's left his wife and son behind in search of supplies, and after some tense debate Paul and Sarah invite Will to bring his family to join their small homestead.
Writer and director Trey Edward Shults ("Krisha") does a masterful job of tone setting in "It Comes At Night", so the sense of unseen menace is palpable. As Paul drives with Will along a winding forest road to pick up his family, it's clear how vulnerable he is. Anything could be lurking in the woods around them, and Will himself is an unproven element: is his story true, or is this some sort of setup? The film's soundtrack here is a brilliant mélange of swelling orchestration and creepy ambient noise and it imparts a relentless sense of urgency that effectively illustrates how taxing it must be to live constantly on guard and on edge, never knowing who to trust or what's coming next.
Will's family - his wife Kim (Riley Keough, "Mad Max: Fury Road") and young son Andrew - do join Paul's clan, but there's still no time to relax. Paul sets the rules of the house, including regular chores, mealtimes together, locked doors, and a strict prohibition on going out at night. The two families work to get along, a group of strangers thrown together by upheaval and trying to survive in a small space. Meanwhile, Travis has figured out how to spy on the newcomers in their bedroom at night. He seems to be developing a crush on Kim, and he's having terrible nightmares...
Based on its marketing campaign audiences may be expecting a stylized but fairly traditional horror film, but "It Comes At Night" is something quite different. Though the genre tropes are in place, the horror elements serve as a framework for a much deeper exploration of how human connections are strained when societal structure breaks down. The story plays like evolution in reverse as these modern families return to a pioneer lifestyle, having to chop wood, boil water, keep animals for food, barricade themselves in a night, and always be afraid of what's outside in the woods. Further devolution occurs as fear of infection raises the paranoia level indoors, and Paul employs an isolationist strategy in an attempt to keep order. But separating the families with strict "us" vs. "them" boundaries turns out to have its own terrible consequences; and certainly there's an intentional message being imparted here.
Mr. Shults maintains a consistent vision throughout the film, so themes of isolation are reinforced by characters separated from one another through bulky protective gear, finding their way around in the dark with only the narrow beam of a flashlight for guidance, or watching others warily from a distance. He's aided in his storytelling by a strong group of actors, particularly Mr. Edgerton, who gives another standout performance as an everyman who's forced to strip away his veneer of civility in the face of a brutal new reality.
"It Comes At Night" is stylish, shocking, and intensely thought-provoking. It's certain to confuse some audiences, but viewers who are looking for scares that go beyond the surface will be amply rewarded by this tale that raises questions about how we all might behave in the face of certain adversity. Be prepared to ponder those questions long after the credits roll, and fair warning: the answers may chill you to the bone.
|Movie title||It Comes At Night|
|Summary||This stylish, shocking, thought-provoking film will reward viewers looking for scares that go beyond the surface.|