Proof that an intimate character-focused drama can be equally gripping to an action/horror, It Comes at Night establishes a pervasive sense of dread in its opening moments and then never lets up. Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo star as Paul and Sarah, a married couple with a teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The trio are attempting to survive in a world where a mysterious disease ravages the population.
Living in a forest (one which evokes similarities to the setting of The Witch), their house is almost broken into by Will (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), a man who claims he thought the place was empty. Upon learning the intruder has a wife, Kim (rising star Riley Keough), and a son – Paul and Sarah cautiously invite the family to stay. As the two clans try to endure, Travis’ sanity begins to unravel. Plus, little things begin to imply that Will may have sinister intentions.
It Comes at Night sees writer-director Trey Edward Shults placing the domestic drama of his debut Krisha into a post-apocalyptic setting. He is not particularly interested in the specifics of the infection spreading amongst the population. Instead his focus remains entirely on the naturalistic interactions between the two families. He explores issues like grief and fear, how in a turbulent setting simple exchanges with people become laced with paranoia. How an act of kindness can ultimately get one killed.
In order for a character based drama like this to succeed, the performances need to work. Thankfully, everyone brings their A-game. Edgerton is reliably terrific as a fundamentally good man but one who isn’t afraid to use violence to protect his family. Ejogo and Keough are excellent. Although one wishes they had a little more to do, in the few scenes focusing on them – their characters feel realistic and lived in.
However, the real stand outs are Harrison Jr. and Abbott, delivering multi-layered performances. The Travis character is very interesting. He’s someone struggling to cope with the decay around him, while also having problems dealing with normal teenage issues like sexuality – the latter manifesting in a voyeuristic attraction to Kim. Harrison Jr. conveys all of this without much dialogue. Meanwhile, Abbott is excellent in the sense that for a huge portion of the drama, one doesn’t know whether Will is being honest or not. His performance never settles on one or the other. He is friendly but hiding something – dipping between the two – leaving the audience unsure of his intentions.
Schults’ direction is confident too. He knows when to hold a shot in a tense moment or keep the camera moving swiftly in an action set-piece, creating real dread. His filmmaking is so good in fact that it actually helps distract from certain story issues. At a certain point in the drama, two mysteries get introduced – both left ambiguous, capable of being interpreted a number of ways. Although one can appreciate leaving these threads open to dissection, it is frustrating that they don’t pay off in a particularly meaningful way.
However, although these mysteries may not be wrapped up neatly, the sense of anxiety Schults creates in building them (a long, quiet take focusing solely on the house’s only exit) and the character’s dilemmas is palpable. It Comes at Night is perhaps too hazy narratively to hit with a big audience. Yet, for fans of more slow apocalyptic movies like The Road or Time of the Wolf – Schults’ sophomore effort is a must. Stephen Porzio