Contrary to what its marketing would have you believe, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night is not a horror movie. At least, not in the traditional sense. The film isn’t concerned with what goes bump in the night. Rather, It Comes At Night focuses on the monsters you see every day.
The film opens in the aftermath of a mysterious plague of biblical proportions wiping out most of the population. Paul (Joel Edgerton) is living out his post-apocalyptic life in a secluded cabin in the woods, with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and his seventeen-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). They’ve settled into a routine in adjusting to their new life. They eat meals together twice a day, always travel in pairs in gas masks, (but never at night), and only have one entrance and exit to their house: the red door.
While it isn’t an exciting life, it has kept them alive thus far. Well, besides Travis’ grandfather, who succumbs to the unknown plague in the film’s opening minutes. Although every decision made is one rooted in fear. Fear of disease, fear of what roams the woods at night, fear of the unknown.
Trouble arises once the unknown begins violently beating on the red door in the middle of the night. After strapping on their gas masks and loading their rifles, Paul and his family discover that the source of the banging is a man (Christopher Abbott). After knocking him out and strapping him to a tree, Paul begins interrogating the man. Paul learns the man’s name is Will. He learns that he is not sick. He learns that he has a wife and young son. And most importantly, he learns he has an ample supply of food. While still wary of trusting a stranger, Paul deduces that the best course of action is to invite Will, Will’s family, and Will’s food, to stake out the remainder of the apocalypse at his house. And for a while, it works.
Underlying tension between Paul and Will’s family that persists throughout the film. While everyone gets along, for the most part, Paul is reluctant to completely trust them. I Paul’s mind, the only ones he can completely trust are himself and his family. Will and his family are still strangers after all. Who knows what they’re capable of?
There’s a serious contrast between the two families. While both families obviously express love for one another but express it in different ways. Where Will is happy and intimate with his family, Paul is cold and calculating with his. Paul’s primary concern is protecting Travis and Sarah, and he’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that.
The film is filled with fantastic performances across the board. The always great Joel Edgerton turns in a subtle and reserved performance as Paul. You get the sense that Paul is ready for things to go horribly wrong at a moments notice, even as the kindling of friendship forms between him and Will. Abott is easy to like as Will, who is warm and endearing. This extends to Riley Keough as well, who plays his wife Kim. However, Kelvin Harrison Jr as Travis most assuredly the standout of the film. Somewhat innocent and immensely likable, it’s easy to instantly empathize with him.
This fear of the unknown weighs heavy on Travis, who is plagued by nightmares because of it. Travis serves as the audience’s eyes in It Comes At Night, which means we experience these nightmares right along with him. These dream sequences are filled with truly haunting imagery, touching on Travis’ deepest fears and insecurities in the wake of the apocalypse. The film changes aspect ratios every time Travis experiences a nightmare, giving these sequences a distinct ethereal feel. As time goes on, the line between nightmare and reality becomes blurred as the film descends into madness. It’s a film trick I haven’t really seen used often, but remarkably effective here.
Outside of that, the film is quite stunning to look at. The darkness is overpowering and oppressive. Single light sources such as lanterns exist as our only reprieve from the pitch black void. Everything outside of that light remains unknown. While the majority of the film takes place in a claustrophobic cabin, Shults skillfully manages to elicit unease and a lingering sense of dread in the way presents it.
Brutal, personal, and quiet, this film pulls no punches in depicting atrocities people are capable of committing due to their lack of empathy and fear of the unknown. Like so many other great horror movies in the cinema canon, It Comes At Night asserts that humans themselves are the real monsters and it’s more than eager to prove it.