Film Review: It Comes at Night

Trey Edward Shults’ assured sophomore feature is more tension than terror.
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Whether by zombies or the depletion of natural resources or despotic governments, there have been no shortage of post-apocalypse scenarios played out on the silver screen over the years. In It Comes at Night, Trey Edward Shults’ follow-up to last year’s critically acclaimed Krisha, the focus isn’t so much on the specifics of the unnamed cataclysm as it is on the paranoia that results.

Psychological trauma isn’t exactly untrammelled territory as far as dystopias are concerned, with “The Walking Dead,” Z for Zachariah, Snowpiercer and the Hunger Games movies all touching on that subject to varying degrees just within the last several years. What sets It Comes at Night apart is the degree to which it doubles down on a chilly atmosphere at the expense of, well, specifics about what the hell’s going on.

Here’s what we know: There’s a highly contagious disease that’s driven Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) out into an isolated house in the woods. Survival mode has set in deep, and Paul in particular is wary of letting the outside world—whatever’s left of it—into their makeshift sanctuary. Of course, that’s when fellow survivor Will (Christopher Abbott) pops up, begging to trade supplies so his own family—wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner)—can survive. Preferring to keep an eye on their unexpected new neighbors, Paul and Sarah invite the trio to live with them, a decision that unbalances the fragile order Paul has manage to establish.

It Comes at Night is a masterpiece of subjective storytelling. We only know what the characters know, which isn’t much. It’s a risky decision for Shults, limiting as it likely will It Comes at Night’s appeal to general audiences, or even fans of more traditional horror. Questions are raised and not answered. There’s no pat wrap-up of plot threads. Backstories are left ambiguous. It makes for a nerve-jangling experience, forcing the audience to see through the blinkered perspective of the characters. They don’t know where the threats are coming from, or even what they are, and that means we don’t either.

The result is a film that’s less horror than a post-apocalyptic character study mixed with heavy elements of the psychological thriller. In its chills-over-scares approach, it’s reminiscent of fellow A24 release The Witch, though it’s even more vague in its storytelling then that already dreamy, atmosphere-heavy film. (Also, spoiler: No Satanic goats in It Comes at Night.) It Comes at Night’s characters and story, such as they are, are all fairly standard. What elevates it above the generic is Shultz’s assured stylistic approach. Drew Daniels’ roving camerawork is claustrophobic in the extreme, amping up anxiety by constantly creeping down hallways and around corners. And Brian McOmber’s clanging score conveys the heightened emotional state of the constantly on-edge characters. 

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