Thom Hetherington reviews Trey Edward Shults’ chilling post-apocalyptic drama.
The opening minutes of It Comes At Night chart a dark and diseased family coming to terms with its own brutality. An incredibly harrowing opening scene shows the cycle of human existence pushed to its literal and metaphorical extremes. And it doesn’t let up from there. This is a film that slowly curls its fingers around your throat, increasing emotional and dramatic tension until it reaches its choking conclusion.
It Comes At Night is an incredibly strong calling card for director Trey Edward Shults, who here builds on the promise of his excellent first feature Krisha. As with Krisha, It Comes At Night is ostensibly a family drama, here centred around the isolated, forest-bound homestead of Joel Edgerton’s Paul. Set in the aftermath of a suitably vague yet catastrophic virus outbreak, the film follows Paul’s day-to-day life alongside his wife Sarah (a frustratingly underused Carmen Ejogo) and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). When a midnight intrusion brings a fellow survivor searching for water for his family, Paul is forced to question how far he will go to protect those he loves.
Breaking with the recent trend of putting an emphasis on cinematic world building, Shults gives the audience only the bare bones of the disaster that occurred. The idea of the outbreak is merely a charred carcass upon which the flesh and meat of the film hang. Shults uses the virus as a catalyst to push his characters to the very edge of their humanity by forcing them into situations and actions that at once expand and obliterate their humanity. This is the film’s key strength: its unflinching view of its characters. They are each at once distinctly likeable and unlikeable. Shults gives space to driving feelings of lust, love and jealousy whilst simultaneously creating a world in which these emotions must be suppressed for survival; a world in which even the most sweet and innocent conversation has to be ransacked for possible betrayals, for the signs of a meticulously constructed lie.
Shults manages to keep his characters on an even keel throughout the film, never demonising or judging them. There is no villain or dark antagonist. There are only men and women forced to juggle trust, paranoia and love; people who let all three of these things force them into violence, desperation and pride. That this expert balance can be successfully struck is in part thanks to the film’s fascination with faces. Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels avoid the typical conversational patterning of ‘shot reverse shot’, instead shooting the film’s many conversations with a constantly moving camera that loops around the speakers. The camera work is underlined by Brian McOmber’s percussive score, which pulsates and undulates around the action unfolding on screen. This is a film that refuses to settle on one point of view.
It Comes At Night is, at times frustratingly so, almost too beautiful for its grimy subject matter. Even in the film’s most gory and horrific passages, the screen glistens. This problem is, however, often circumvented by the film’s aforementioned emphasis on faces; horror is often left on the reverse of the camera, leaving the viewer with only the contorted face of the beholder and their own imagination. Whilst there are some moments of uncomfortable gore and physical horror they are glimpsed in the corner of the frame rather than flung towards the camera with gleeful delight.
Shults’ trust in his actors makes the film even more horrifying. Joel Edgerton adds shade to the sturdy patriarchs he has played in the past and delivers a quietly powerful performance. Kelvin Harrison Jr. actualizes the struggle and naivety of Edgerton’s son Travis with an understated innocence that keeps the film afloat. Unfortunately, the female characters are somewhat sidelined, despite strong performances from Riley Keough and Carmen Ejogo. Their presence is felt in the strength of their performances rather than the actions of their characters. Shults has talked about how this is a film inspired by his relationship with his father and, whilst it never turns into a testosterone-fuelled slam down or an exploration of the masculine psyche, the film is certainly more skewed towards its male characters. Shults here explores a fascination with fatherhood that runs in a complimentary parallel to Krisha’s concern with maternity.
Ultimately this is a film where true horror lies within the characters themselves: an interior force to be wrestled with rather than an exterior one to be defeated. It Comes At Night is a film best seen with as little knowledge of its plot and circumstances as possible. It would be wise also to leave any generic expectations at the door; this is a horrifying film, but not for the reasons the marketing suggests. The film’s pitch-black darkness is its biggest strength and is shot through the very veins of the film into every frame, character and line. Shults creates a film of dreadful atmosphere and experience that leaves the viewer upset, scared and exhilarated. Like the diseased within it, this is a film that oozes out a thick, infecting darkness that causes the audience to question their own decisions, codes and state of mind.
It Comes At Night is out in UK cinemas on July 7. See the final U.S. trailer below: