A whimper. No fade, no image, no music. Just a whimper. Suddenly, a man’s face. A face decomposed by rotten scabs and black eyes. A muffled voice, crying for the man to let go. The voice of a woman with a gas mask on. The man whimpers. Two masked men carrying the deceased man into the woods. Gunshot. Fire. Title card: “It Comes At Night.”

This opening tells you all you need to know about A24’s newest horror film: the audience isn’t going to receive much detail, you never know where any scene will end up, and all human courtesy has been lost. We’re introduced to half of our main characters behind gas masks, yet somehow we know exactly who each one is simply by the way they participate in the first three minutes. We know that the oldest man is ruthless and will do what needs to be done. We know that his son will go along with his father, but faces some restraint morally and emotionally. We know that the mother is the most human of the bunch. It’s an impeccable opening, one that puts you exactly where you need to be for the remaining hour and a half.

It Comes At Night begins right in the middle. Humankind has fallen to a mysterious disease, and people are scraping by on pillaging abandoned houses, limited food and water on everyone’s mind. Our lead family lives a methodic post-apocalyptic life, and it’s relatively relaxed outside of Travis (the son) having the occasional nightmare. Their lives change, however, when another family is invited to join them after a series of fortunate and/or unfortunate events. What follows is a tale of family, tension, and—most of all—anxiety.

What writer/director Trey Edward Shults (who also made Krisha for A24 back in 2015) does best is depict the aforementioned anxiety of this world. In the house where our story takes place (it’s unclear whether it was theirs before the disease hit America), they have hung pictures; everywhere Travis goes, particularly in his nightmares, there are still images of his past. Even when worrying about the future, remnants of Travis’ past are omnipotent—in many of his dreams, he finds his grandfather, who was the infected man at the beginning of the film. He can’t escape these thoughts of the past, and meanwhile can’t seem to avoid the lingering fear of what could happen just minutes from now.

To build the anxiety more, Shults mixes the sound in an extraordinarily direct way. A perfect example takes place around a dinner table. Travis is between his parents, who are having a seemingly important discussion. We don’t hear it very well, however. The voices of his parents are muffled, allowing us to focus on nothing but Travis, whose mind appears to be running a mile a minute. It’s a beautiful technique for building the emotional state of a boy overpowered by his paranoid father.

The acting should be appreciated just as much as the technical side of things. The powerhouse here is the amazing Joel Edgerton as Travis’ father. He plays a man crippled by fear who utilises his abilities to act as if he’s in charge of the entire situation. It’s a subtle performance, one where facial expressions and slight movements reign supreme; the way he walks, stiff as a board and confident as a pirate, tells us more in one second about his person than we learn about his wife through the whole picture. His wife brought to life the increasingly famous Carmen Ejogo, does not hold back with her performance but has very little character to build off of. Trey Edward Shults focuses a bit too much on the major players in the film and not enough on the smaller ones. The other character who felt one-dimensional (despite being the second billed person) is Will, the father of the other family. Will is a family man through and through, and actor Christopher Abbott’s presence makes him a joy to watch, but once the film ends, the character feels flat. The entire cast did an excellent job, though I wish some of them had a little more to do.  

The other star of It Comes At Night? Director of Photography Drew Daniels. Damn, that man can light a scene. Heavily influenced by the master of darkness Gordon Willis, Daniels isn’t afraid to keep the audience wondering; he keeps vital moments hidden behind desolate shadows, and sometimes lights an entire scene with nothing but the flashlight on the end of a rifle. Add that in with brutally locked-down camera angles and a tendency to move slower than the characters on screen, and you have the tension-filled visuals we sit squeamishly through.

Despite all the wonders that Trey Edward Shults grants to It Comes At Night, there is one massive problem: the film never fully fleshes out its ideas. In its first two acts, Shults places the groundwork for an explosive thematic finale, but nothing ever comes to fruition. Take the idea of our history, which I mentioned earlier when discussing Travis’ anxiety. All over the house are remnants of the past. In Travis’ nightmares are the traces of memories. In his pre-apocalypse life, the father was a history teacher. Paintings of genocide and the black death are even shown early in the film during a montage of Travis falling asleep. The motif of history is everywhere, yet nothing ever comes of it.  Because of the half-fulfilled ideas, I can’t find a point to the movie, even to the point where I’m having trouble understanding what it is the disease even represents. The one thing I can figure out is the title, but even trying to dissect that leads you to an inevitable dead end, for the film is relatively theme-less.

Though this critique is a big one, it isn’t enough to detract from just how great the general horror of It Comes At Night is. I’m finding myself more haunted by the imagery in Shults’ movie than that of 2015’s so-called horror masterpiece, The Witch. It Comes At Night is filled with overall good characters, unbelievable acting, a solid script, and brilliant cinematography.

The film may have been made for arthouse audiences, but I have a feeling it will play better with general audiences. The thrills are everywhere, the horror is genuine, and the walk to your car from the movie theatre is scarier than ever.


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