It Comes at Night is at its best in these moments, using apocalyptic horror to reflect the horrors of our own society.
With It Comes at Night, writer-director Trey Edward Shults follows his impressive debut Krisha with a thriller so intentionally vague that it will leave many viewers scratching their heads. Despite being maddeningly opaque, it’s a tidy, scary, viciously intense chamber piece featuring strong performances all around.
We meet Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison) clad in gasmasks and saying their goodbyes to Sarah’s catatonic father Bud (David Pendleton). The men take Bud outside, shoot him in the head and set his body on fire. These are survivors of an unnamed, apocalyptic pandemic, and their forest refuge is fortified against intruders and against an airborne disease that Bud had just contracted.
Shults doesn’t miss a beat, using every arrow in his filmmaking quiver to ratchet up a gripping sense of dread. Of particular note is the repeated image of the blood red door to Paul and Sarah’s woodland home, and an eerie piece of foreshadowing following an unexpected shootout.
After these early moments, Shults keeps the pace slow and natural. Comparisons will inevitably be made between It Comes at Night and Robert Eggers’ acclaimed The Witch, which likewise starts with a bang before settling in at an uneasy pace before going bonkers again. However, Shults’ latest has more in common with Sean Durkin’s 2011 thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, which thrives on the similar sense that something is y wrong just beyond the view of its characters.
Unfortunately, It Comes at Night falls short, its dread built up with nowhere to go. By withholding so much, it makes you wonder “what is missing?” more than “what did I miss?”
Still, the film’s lack of clues is frustrating more than damning. Shults’ confident filmmaking, supported by surgical, ominous cinematography by Drew Daniels and a vivid, unsettling score by Brian McOmber, is thrilling to watch. Edgerton gives a sensitive but unsentimental performance, completely believable as a family man transformed by an apocalypse. Ejogo, criminally underused in Fantastic Beasts and Alien: Covenant, takes advantage of meatier material, infusing Sarah with a palpable warmth and fear that becomes the emotional center of the film. Relative newcomer Harrison makes Travis perfectly ambiguous, a satisfying cipher even when the film’s central mysteries feel incomplete.
Finally, It Comes at Night must be commended for featuring a racially diverse cast. It speaks to the state of the racially backward American film industry that the presence of an interracial family at the center of a film feels so refreshing. Though Shults doesn’t use this to make an obvious point, it is chilling when, late in the film, Sarah asks Travis if he touched the young white son of another surviving couple, fearful of what his parents will do. It’s hard not to find a political statement in a black mother wanting to keep her son safe from the apocalypse. It Comes at Night is at its best in these moments, using apocalyptic horror to reflect the horrors of our own society.