for violence, disturbing images, and language
Joel Edgerton, Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo
Trey Edward Shults
Over the past two decades, horror movies have increasingly gravitated toward jump-scare experiences: stories more interested in delivering sudden shocks than developing suspense through mood and atmosphere. This dumbing down of horror, which has turned it into a PG-13 assembly line, has resulted in a long list of uninspired, uninspiring titles that are easily consumed and more easily forgotten. It Comes at Night, from sophomore writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krishna), rejects these trends and sets itself up as a character-driven foray into psychological horror. The R-rating, which could have been softened to a PG-13 with only a few changes, is a statement: horror isn't for the faint of heart. It's not a child's genre. It isn't meant to be comfortable. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a recent movie that's as uncomfortable and disturbing as It Comes at Night.
As the movie opens, we're not sure what's going on. An old man, afflicted with some kind of disease, is surrounded by three people wearing gas masks. They speak but their words are garbled by the masks. We soon learn why they're there, what they're doing, and how dire their circumstances are. They are Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Their task is to kill Sarah's terminally ill father then burn his body. He has contracted a dangerously contagious illness that has ravaged the country. The deed done, they return inside their heavily fortified, isolated house. They are stuck in a terrible limbo where life is about survival. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, just an impenetrable fog of uncertainty and the recognition that any other human being can be The Grim Reaper.
Their security is compromised when a lone man, Will (Christopher Abbott), breaks in, thinking the place is abandoned. Paul knocks him out, ties him up, and waits to see whether there are indications of sickness. When it appears that the newcomer is healthy, Paul listens to Will's story - he and his wife and son are also refugees - and agrees to help. In short time, the small group inside the house grows from three to six, with Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their son Edward providing companionship and help with chores. But what at first seems to be an amicable situation grows tense as small instances of dishonesty create fractures in the interpersonal dynamics. Meanwhile, there may be something out in the woods, watching and waiting.
Although It Comes at Night embraces its share of tropes, it becomes almost impossible to guess where the story is going. 60 minutes into the 97-minute running time, I found myself unable to predict how things would end up - something unusual for a horror movie circa 2017. Shults, appropriating a technique from Hitchcock, peppers the film with red herrings. Some mean nothing but they prod viewers to think and wonder about characters. Clever misdirection keeps us off-balance. The ending doesn't blindside us but is no less powerful for its inevitability.
It Comes at Night is built on a foundation of mood. The woods are a character. They surround the house providing protection and hiding potential enemies. When the family watchdog scampers off and his barks suddenly stop, only the trees know what has happened to him. The inside of the house is claustrophobic - the diametric opposite of what a "home" should be. Nightmares bleed into reality and, despite Shults' reluctance to make It Comes at Night about jolts, there are a couple of top-notch jump-scares. The sound department deserves special recognition - the use of sound in this movie, especially the percussive music - is extraordinary.
The cast is strong with Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott fully inhabiting their characters. Although in similar situations - both Paul and Will are tasked with "providing for" their families - there's a gulf of difference between what they're willing to do. Edgerton plays Paul as a heroic type whose conscience has become calcified. Abbott's Will is more naïve and less willing to pay the ultimate price for continued survival. The other members of the cast - Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Riley Keough - all have at least one or two emotionally wrenching scenes.
There's no denying that It Comes at Night is dark. This isn't a movie to see for anyone in search of light escapism or disposable horror. Its atmosphere settles into the bones and its presence lingers after the credits have ended and the house lights brightened. The closest recent analog is Green Room and, although the films are only superficially alike in terms of narrative, they share a kinship in the way they treat audiences and the genre with respect. It Comes at Night doesn't compromise and for those who love a grittier, less audience-friendly flavor of horror, it's a must-see.
© 2017 James Berardinelli
Cinemas About Town