By Matt Fleming. When it comes to genre films, ambition is a tough sell. Occasionally, fresh ideas from new filmmakers strike a balance of convention and innovation (I’m looking at you, Get Out), but far more often the end result is stifled by an implied sense of importance.
It Comes At Night, a pretty good suspense film in its own right, falls short of its potential. What seems to be the culprit? Blame the film’s marketing campaign. Having washed my brain of the film’s trailers ahead of time, it is reasonable to expect It Comes At Night to be an all-out spine-tingling horror show, full of Shyamalan-level twists and scary monsters. A horror film this is not.
Existential thriller placed in a mid-apocalyptic background? That just doesn’t sound good in a marketing meeting. Packed into a dense 90 minutes, this thriller doesn’t aim to hit the audience with jump scares or supernatural phenomena, but to fill them with all the potential dread of reality. Sure, there is the underlying terror that comes with a world engulfed by the bubonic plague, but here? It’s merely background noise. This movie is all about the sleep of reason breeding monsters of men.
When It Comes At Night begins, the dire straits are quickly established. A family is forced to put an elderly member out to pasture due to a terrible case of the plague (a scene that provides the film with its primary source of visual horror). The survivors, Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), struggle to maintain their frayed sense of normalcy when a stranger intrudes upon their compound, throwing their tentative safety off balance. Paul responds… harshly, to say the least.
What follows is a rapid descent into the worst tendencies of humanity, steeped in fear and paranoia. The ends are met very effectively, to be sure, but the hard turn toward a species-wide morality tale comes hard, fast and abruptly.
It Comes At Night derives quite a bit of strength from its small but capable cast, tasked with convincingly translating a sparse screenplay written by the film’s director, Trey Edward Shults. By leaps and bounds, Joel Edgerton shines as the focal point of most of the film’s action. Channeling Kurt Russell in The Thing, Edgerton gives a mesmerizing performance that carries the heavy subject matter all the way to its bitter finale. Christopher Abbott plays the potentially dubious Will to enormous success, keeping the audience constantly questioning their own sanity as Paul’s seems to burn away.
The standout of the cast is Kelvin Harrison Jr., whose Travis guides the film through waking life and an occasionally terrifying dream-state. The relative newcomer delivers a great performance as a kid caught between puberty and apocalypse. Harrison serves as an emotional barometer for the story.
Shults delivers a visually beautiful film with his feature debut, and his desire to craft an original story within the genre of pseudo-horror is well noted and applauded. It Comes At Night is one of the prettiest bummers I’ve seen in some time, and Shults shows a great amount of control over a small-yet-expansive space (as well as a minuscule budget). The film is an effective treatise on fear and desperation, though it overreaches its thematic scope. It Comes At Night feels like a sneak peek into the potential of a young director who seems unafraid to confront the darker side of life and death, although he may want to lay off the Terrence Malick for a while.
Audiences expecting a thrill show might be disappointed, but for the cynical and dystopian crowd, It Comes At Night is enough terror to give you nightmares of the mortal variety. What really comes at night is a paranoia that could drive any sane human to the breaking point. That on its own is truly terrifying.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults.
Produced by David Kaplan and Andrea Roa.
Written by Trey Edward Shults.
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Riley Keough.
Rated R for ceaseless dread and expletive-flecked paranoia.
7 out of 10