It Comes At Night is a terse family drama disguising itself as a horror film. Still, it remains the scariest filmgoing experience of 2017 thus far.
The film takes place in an idyllic cabin hideaway in the woods. It is the sort of place that you would run off to on a lazy Summer weekend. But this house also has wood boarding up its windows. It has a pair of doors—one prominently red—locking itself off from the outside world.
This is no vacation. It is survival.
This contrast that director Trey Edward Shults plays with is crucial to the thematic understanding of It Comes At Night. In the film, a family of three have just buried their eldest member, the grandfather of 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). But they couldn’t bury him through conventional means, given the existence of some unnamed, highly contagious disease.
Paul, played with the stoic grace of Joel Edgerton, takes Travis out into the woods to shoot and subsequently burn the elderly man. Paul’s wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) will later scold Paul for subjecting their son to such an event while Travis eavesdrops from the vantage point of the thin-walled attic.
All Paul wants is to keep his family safe, and he aims to do so when an intruder breaks through that ominous red door at night. Enter Will (Christopher Abbott), the vaguely shady counterpart to Paul with a family of his own.
When the two family’s converge, the film begins in earnest its descent into the darkest annals of the psychology of survival.
Like Shults’ debut feature Krisha, It Comes At Night is a marvel to behold. It is the type of film that is boiling over with not just narrative intensity, but with a visual drive that is indicative of an attention to craft that is woefully unseen in the vast majority of wide release cinema.
It Comes At Night has a domestic release in over 2,000 screens, and that is surprising. Not because the film is not good, but exactly because it is. It is an art horror film that is rarely seen in theaters during June, let alone during the calendar year as a whole.
The most immediate comparison is with last year’s The Witch. Both films carry with it the unbearable weight of atmosphere, dragging the chains of dread through their runtimes like Jacob Marley drags the chains of his past sins.
And like the notable shot from The Witch, in which the camera slowing tracks around the corner of the house to reveal the father aggressively chopping wood, It Comes At Night employees the camera in exceedingly impressive ways.
Just as Trey Edward Shults is an up-and-coming director, cinematographer Drew Daniels is an upstart in his own right. The film lives and breathes on its camera movement. From the pointed push-ins on that red door to the slow swivel around conversational closeups, the camera controls the tension of each scene, and it does it with a deliberate gait that is unmerciful.
Everything done visually in this film contributes to a tone that begins claustrophobic and ends suffocating. From the exceeding use of closeups to the hallways in the home that seem to grow more narrow as you move through it to the frame itself closing in through ever-tightening aspect ratios, the film slowly wraps its fingers around your throat as it moves to its gut-wrenching end.
The argument can be made that the stylish nature of the camerawork detracts from the horror film, but that argument can only be made if you irresponsibly lump this film in with horror.
It Comes At Night is a horror film, but it is not the horror film that you are seeing in its trailers. The horror of the apocalyptic environment that these two families find themselves in is more of a MacGuffin than anything else. It is the threat of the unseen, which is a trope endlessly done and undone within the horror genre.
But the film is made horrifying by what we do see. What we are privileged to is perhaps far more terrifying than the world that these characters are shielding themselves from. The characters fears of the unknown are what drive the hysteria, but they are what frighten us.
This balance of character fear versus audience fear is struck pitch perfectly. Note Edgerton’s nonverbal performance, particularly when he is holding a gun. The glimpses of humanity that are keeping him from protecting his family haunt him, and his decisions ultimately affect him physically. We can see his fear.
The same can be said of all of the characters, Edgerton merely sells it the best. It is thus utterly and abysmally terrifying when our own fears come to fruition at the climax of the film. Call it cynical or call it effective horror, the way we are jilted by the spiraling end of the film is undoubtedly compelling.
It Comes At Night is a white-knuckle-tense thriller that reverberates with dread at every turn. It may lean somewhat heavily on surreal dream imagery to carry the weight of its scare tactics, but the film otherwise survives quite handily on its ambient perturbation, a skin-crawling disease of anticipation that haunts the audience until the credits.
The film is about the lengths to which people will go to protect their family and the disintegration of conscience that comes as a price. The horror of the film is human, and the result is both dismal and dire. But, like all things, it is a product of its environment. An environment so rich in isolation that survival becomes a goal that transcends morals.
In short, the things that make us human also make us monsters. It all depends on the environment in which those things are exposed. Given this bleak thesis statement, It Comes At Night leaves you both empty-handed and wanting more.
It Comes At Night: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)