It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about movies about the Final Days in terms of how “they reveal the real monster/virus/nuclear holocaust to be man,” especially after The Walking Dead repeatedly beat the idea into the ground with a barbed-wire baseball bat over the course of 7 steadily more interminable seasons.
Yet still, I feel like it’s worth bringing up when discussing director Trey Edward Shults’ new film from A24, It Comes At Night. Let it not be because I am a walking cliche, but because I cannot think of any film in quite some time that so embodies that ethos. Not only in the fact that there is no monster (which is sure to irritate many an unsuspecting theatergoer), but for the fact that it has such an uncompromisingly bleak view of what we will do when the chips come down, and the terror that the family unit can wreak.
Set sometime after a plague has devastated humanity, a family – father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) hidden away in a remote cabin in the woods buries their infected grandfather. One night, a man (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house, seeking supplies from a house he says he believed to be uninhabited (if you believe him).
Paul takes the man captive and then lets the man, Will, bring his family, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), back to their house to survive together. But being trapped in a desperate scenario makes for darker impulses.
It Comes At Night is almost certainly not the movie the marketing is selling or even that the title is selling. Implied in the images of desiccated men with blackened eyes and ominous doors and shadowy woods is that there is some monster lurking and an “IT” that comes at night, a zombie or a vampire or something that can be defeated to beat back the darkness.
The groans and moans I heard exiting the theater likely ties into the precise lack of any of that. It Comes At Night is ultimately more deeply unsettling than frightening, its scares eliciting gut-wrenching rather than adrenaline-raising.
But based on Shults’ previous film Krisha, that should be no surprise. Krisha was something of a horror film in this vein, a creeping dread set in around when its lead would eventually fail her family.
Ultimately, It Comes At Night is in the same vein. A film of family horror, where the shading of the relationships is the animating force, slowly pushing the dynamics to their breaking point and seeing what’s left after the devastation. Where its trust and the lack thereof is what destroys everyone.
There’s something more fully formed in Shults’ nihilism here. In fact, in general, It Comes At Night is impressive for seeing the massive leaps forward Shults has taken in the things that animate him as a filmmaker. That nihilism is at the core, a fundamental distrust in the nature of humanity and his belief that people will ultimately let each other down, is fully formed here. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s a good thing, but that is the impulse that electrifies It Comes At Night, a sort of sighing resignation that we will ultimately eat each other and maybe we deserve it.
It Comes At Night has also pushed forward from a filmmaking perspective. Krisha felt like an excessive ape of his mentor Terrence Malick, It Comes At Night alters that free-floating camera into something more meditative and focused. It maintains the ethereal beauty and the glide, but it’s absolutely willing to lock and linger now, putting emphasis on stares and glances and the stoic faces.
Shults’ filmmaking is the painting here, his writing keeping a tight and twisty narrative that tends towards ambiguity (occasionally to the film’s detriment) but being largely serviceable. Perhaps the biggest inconsistency here is acting.
Edgerton is great, even if he’s basically doing the same performance he does every time. Ejogo is great, but she doesn’t get much to do, same goes for Keough. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is truly great, given the most complex character and absolutely knocking out of the park. Christopher Abbott is…serviceable. Not actively bad, but seems just kind of lost in a character that’s more about hiding things than revealing anything.
But It Comes At Night’s successes far far outweigh those failures. It’s a portrait of the end, a dark and nihilistic twist on the idea that during the Apocalypse, we will be more dangerous to ourselves than anyone or anything else.