It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, 2017)
There is much to recommend in director Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore effort (which follows his 2015 debut feature, Krisha). A master of the creepy, slow tracking shot married to eerie sound design, Shults creates an entire post-apocalyptic universe out of little more than sticks and stones, setting It Comes at Night in a lonely house in the woods, where the three surviving members of a family hide from marauders and disease. For two-thirds of the movie, Shults holds us in rapt attention despite the minimalism of the plot. And then, sadly, in the final act, he undoes much of the good that has come before, ignoring the carefully interwoven narrative threads in favor of an eruption of violence. Though disappointing, this failure of imagination does not entirely negate the promise of the earlier mise-en-scène.
Joel Edgerton (Loving) plays Paul, husband to Sarah (Carmen Ejogo, Selma) and father to Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation). As the film begins, they are forced to shoot, then burn, Sarah’s father, victim of a plague that has swept the planet, or at least the small portion of it we see. It’s a highly contagious illness, leading to the rapid onset of skin lesions and respiratory failure. When we first meet our main characters, therefore, we see them through gas masks and gloves as they perform the grisly deed that leaves them all traumatized. Poor teenage Travis gains meager solace in the company of Stanley, his now-dead grandfather’s dog, and seems the most affected by the event and the family’s isolation. He wakes up in the middle of the night from disturbed dreams, and one of Shults’ great accomplishments is how he blends reality and fantasy so that we’re not always sure which is which. When a visitor arrives in the dark, knocking at the door, we wonder if it’s a projection of Travis’ nightmare or something/somebody worse.
That intruder turns out to be a simple man, Will (Christopher Abbott, Katie Says Goodbye), a survivor like the others, who mistakes the boarded-up house for a deserted building and is surprised to discover the enraged and protective Paul when he breaks down the door. Though Will loses that scuffle, Paul doesn’t kill him, and Will is able to explain that he has a family of his own, miles away, awaiting his return with water. Six is better than three, says Sarah, and so Paul, always wary, sets off with Will to fetch the latter’s wife and infant child. It’s an uneasy alliance that will be tested at regular intervals throughout, before the harsh conditions of this frightening future bear their ugly fruit.
Every single one of the actors delivers an intensely committed performance, though the film really belongs to Harrison, whose eyes hold great reserves of pain, and who looks on Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough, Dixieland) with more than just the longing of adolescent hormones: he desperately needs a friend. As the film builds to its climax, Shults explores the relationships that develop in the confined space of the house, keeping us guessing as to what may happen. Unfortunately, he tries a little too hard to lead us first one way and then the other, casting suspicions on certain characters that ultimately do not matter, given the conclusion. I, for one, resent the red herrings, especially given the otherwise brilliance of the tone and pacing. Still, as a meditation on the madness that besets the human animal when all seems lost – the true sickness is within the soul, rather than in the world at large – It Comes at Night offers plenty of cinematic pleasures (perhaps the wrong word in a film where bad things happen to good people) that reveal a directorial talent to watch in the years ahead.