IT COMES AT NIGHT
By Nathan Evans
Despite its marketing campaign, director Trey Edward Shults’ second feature film, ‘It Comes at Night’, is not a horror film. Though the movie does feature some intense, dark imagery, it functions more as a psychological suspense tale than your classic gore fest slasher flick. I feel that in their desire to put butts in seats, the film’s studio, ’A24’, is intentionally misleading filmgoers; which is fine for selling tickets, but has the potential to damage the film in regards to its reception. I provide this warning because ‘It Comes at Night’ is one of the most taut, suspenseful, thought provoking films I’ve seen in some time, and I don’t want it to be disregarded because of commercial subterfuge.
The film stars perennially underrated leading-man-with-character-actor-chops Joel Edgerton as Paul, the patriarch of a mixed race family that includes his seventeen year old son, Travis, portrayed by ‘Birth of a Nation’s’ Kelvin Harrison Jr., and his wife, Sarah, portrayed by ‘Selma’s’ Carmen Ejogo. The family has been residing in their boarded up woodland home, isolated for an undefined amount of time from an unnamed, virulent disaster that has seemingly collapsed outside society. Following the unsettling death of Sarah’s father from the mysterious plague, Paul and his family adhere to a strict set of rules in order to remain free of the disease while maintaining the compound they’ve created for themselves: they only leave the house in groups of two, no one goes out at night, and, most importantly, no one opens up the red door at the end of the hall once its locked.
Though not ideal, the family gets along well enough until a stranger named Will (‘Girls’ star Christopher Abbott) arrives at their doorstep in the middle of the night. He tells tale of a family—his own wife and son— that he left behind in search of food and water. Unsure of whether or not to believe the man, as well as unsure of his health, Paul and his family walk a tight rope between what needs to be done to keep them safe and what they need to do to uphold some sort of moral order.
Like some of the best episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’, ‘It Comes at Night’ does a lot with a little. The runtime of the film is short, the cast is small, and the budget couldn’t have been big, but the director, Shults, is able to craft a film pregnant with dread, armed only with suggestion, ambiguity, and some classic aspect ratio tricks and shifting camerawork. In fact, the near imperceptible shifts in film language are some of the best aspects of the movie, complimenting the work of the film’s accomplished cast and the haunting, mostly understated score from composer Brian McOmber.
I’ve already touched on Edgerton’s presence, but I must reaffirm how good he is here. His Paul is a man that’s almost too practical for his own good, able to divorce himself from his own emotions a bit too easily. A quality that makes him good at survival, but may come at too high of a price. He never becomes the bad guy, in fact no one does, but, like a real flesh and blood person, he has the capacity for great violence as well as great affection. Most of that affection he bestows upon his son, Travis, and we get to see how that mingles with Travis’ judgement of his his father and his actions.
As the foil to Edgerton’s Paul, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is exceptional as Travis, and may be the film’s standout performance. Harrison is sensitive and nuanced throughout, able to convey great complexity with a mere expression. The dreams that he experiences throughout the film provide some of the movies most haunting imagery; imagery that’s tasteful in its horror, and carries the potential to keep you up at night.
In addition to the performances and craft, the film’s greatest strength is what I believe many will consider to be its greatest weakness: its aforementioned sense of ambiguity. ‘It Comes at Night’, at its heart, is a morality play, and as such it doesn’t tell you how you’re supposed to feel about it or its characters. The film thrusts you into its world, allowing you to experience what the characters experience, which means you’ll only ever know what they know, leaving the film with more than a few unanswered questions. More literal minded filmgoers will come away frustrated, and while I was initially amongst that number, the more I thought on the film, the more I came to appreciate Shults’ decision to leave the narrative open in such a way.
‘It Comes at Night’ is a welcome reprieve from the summer blockbuster season (though if you’re a reader of this blog you know I appreciate a great blockbuster as well). The movie is thoughtful and engaging without relying on jump scares or cliches. Almost every aspect of the film is exceptional, and the questions and statement it makes on human nature will stay with you long after the film has ended.
RATING: 4.75 OUT OF 5
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