“We don’t even know who these people are.”
When Robert Eggers’ excellent, dread-filled The Witch finally hit theaters in 2016 after much hype, an odd backlash arose: certain viewers proclaimed that it wasn’t “really a horror film.” It was a befuddling claim, because it’s pretty damn clear The Witch is indeed a horror film. Yet the slow nature and mostly subtle chills seemed to throw off audiences who had grown used to horror being synonymous with jump scares and cheap thrills. The Witch was released by super indie distributor A24, and now A24 has another slow-burn chiller on their hands in the form of Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night. And if The Witch, which actually had supernatural elements in it, can be derided as “not really a horror film”, I have a pretty bad feeling about how genre fans will react to Shults’ intense, uncomfortable nightmare.
But let’s get one thing straight: It Comes at Night is a horror film. It is horror in its purest form — raw, unrelenting, all encompassing. Shults’ feature debut was the extraordinary Krisha, which was less a film than a cinematic panic attack. The filmmaker transfers the same talent for capturing ever-rising anxiety onto this film, which deals with grief, regret and isolation in subtle, wholly effective ways.
It Comes at Night is set after some cataclysmic event. We won’t call it apocalyptic, because it’s never revealed just how many people have died in the outside world. What’s clear is this: a black plague-like sickness has infected people, leading a family of three to hold up in their sprawling, secluded woodland home. There’s the father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), the mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Right as It Comes at Night begins, they’re actually a family of four, with Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton) a part of the unit. But Bud is sick, and there’s only one recourse: Paul, wearing a gas mask, loads the old man into a wheelbarrow, takes him out into the woods, shoots him and sets the corpse on fire. It’s a jarring, bleak opening, and right away Shults is setting the stage, cluing the audience in to the unpleasantness to follow.
Bud exits the film before we’ve even gotten a chance to know who he is, but the character haunts the frames of It Comes at Night, appearing sickly and ghoul-like in nightmares that plague Travis. Shults wrote It Comes at Night after the death of his estranged father, and the sense of loss and unrelenting grief hangs over It Comes at Night. This is a sorrowful, mournful film, and it’s going to make a lot of people feel very, very bad. I mean that as a compliment, by the way, because there’s an immense power in Shults’ ability to encapsulate that grief and make it tangible.
The family’s world is turned upside down when a home intruder breaches the front door one night. This is Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims he has a wife and son hiding somewhere a few miles away. Paul doubts his story, and Sarah seems reluctant to let the man go, lest he lead others back to their secure compound. After much deliberating, Paul decides to go with Will to retrieve his family and bring them back. After a daunting trip where they’re ambushed by two mysterious men in the woods, Paul and Will finally retrieve Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The group becomes something of a mini-society back at Paul and Sarah’s home, with everyone sharing duties and becoming very friendly in the process. For Travis, who is 17, the arrival of Kim is like a wake-up call to his hormones. He frequently catches himself leering at her on several occasions, and is prone to having sexual dreams about Kim — dreams that ultimately turn nasty, as if to suggest there’s absolutely no escape from the unpleasantness of this world. Here, even your sex fantasies are tinged with bile and blood.
No matter how friendly Paul’s family and Will’s family grow, there’s a prevailing sense of mistrust, perhaps even jealously. Paul is often cold, the traumatic cataclysmic events understandably hardening him. The coldness can often present itself as a barrier between himself and Travis. Will, meanwhile, seems rather easy-going, and he and Travis get along quite well. Shults lets the camera linger as Will teaches Travis how to chop wood, the two of them laughing and joking, all while Paul watches from a distance, a slight frown on his haggard face.
Shults is an expert at letting quiet moments play out, and never tipping his hand at where they’re going, and all of this is captured with Drew Daniels’s haunting, shadowy cinematography. Even the scenes set in broad daylight seem pooled in shadow — there’s no escape from darkness here. And there’s always a sense that something is about to go wrong, but we just don’t know what. So we sit and wait, our pulse quickening, our hearts thudding. Waiting for the bad things to come. The actors play all of this expertly — Edgerton is great at letting his somber eyes do most of the talking while Abbot does a wonderful job of always seeming as if he’s holding something back. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is also quite good as the film’s grounded center, the character who we view most of the film through. Travis is a haunted young man, but in many ways he still seems innocent and untouched by the horror that’s slowly closing around his house like a fist. If there’s one main flaw in It Comes at Night, it’s how underutilized the female cast members are. Ejogo shines in the film’s opening scene as she tearfully says goodbye to her sick father, but after that she mostly recedes into the background. And Keough’s character is almost a complete enigma, resulting in the actress having very little to do for most of the runtime.
It Comes at Night builds, and builds, and builds before unleashing a nightmarish, soul-sickening conclusion that will utterly devastate you if you’ve grown invested in the film’s narrative. Shults takes an incredible risk concluding the film the way he does, and he should be commended for never wavering, never relenting and somehow making it all work. The end result is a masterwork of modern horror, a terrifying meditation on grief, and further proof that Shults is a filmmaker to keep a close eye on. “Imagine the end of the world. Now imagine something worse,” states the tagline for It Comes at Night. What’s worse than the end of the world? Surviving it. Just like grief, the dead are the ones who are free of pain. It’s those of us left grieving, those of us who have to keep going on carrying the memory, who will suffer most. How horrifying.