Studio A24 delivers yet another spellbinding minimalistic thriller with Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, which proves that atmosphere and tension can be more terrifying than any immediate danger that may jump its way onto our screens. What it lacks as a result of its minimalism it wholly makes up for through its enthralling visual composition and a masterfully paced score as all facets of filmmaking work in unison to produce a horror film that may not immediately scare you but will surely linger in your mind.
It Comes at Night takes place in the wake of an unspecified apocalypse. An infection has ravaged the Earth but the protagonists we follow know nothing of the details behind the plague, nor the state of the world beyond the shelter of their cabin in the woods. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have just finished cremating Sarah’s father, a victim of the outbreak. While they maintain a routine way of survival within their home the threat of infection and death constantly looms over them, forcing them to adhere to a strict set of rules; the most important of which is to never leave the house, particularly at night. Their family dynamic is disrupted once Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home in search of water and supplies for his own family. After a 24-hour interrogation, Paul invites his family into their home to better fare against any oncoming threats. Over the course of their stay conflict seeps through the characters’ growing paranoia as the film forces its protagonists to concern themselves with both surviving the ongoing apocalypse and the fear of trusting strangers in the wake of such disaster.
It Comes at Night features a number of arresting performances as each character is written with enough depth and intricacy to allow for a universal sense of sympathy, no matter how many boundaries its characters cross. Harrison, in particular, captures the complexities of a teenage boy within such a confined situation, whose emerging sexuality, angst and frustration are visually expressed through his fascination with the young couple that’s moved in. Edgerton’s Paul additionally abandons most heroic traits of post-apocalyptic father figures and elevates his character beyond the manly bearded badass we’ve seen in so many similar survival horrors. He’s hardly a Mad Max-type, but rather a broken and terrified man desperate to hold on to what little he has left. It is the moments that focus on the family’s rules and lifestyle that sets the film apart from its kind, offering a fleshed out portrayal of life at the end of the world. Even when characters make the irrational decisions as is typical within horror films to further their plot, through knowing their mundane lives and routines we understand a compelling reason for them doing so. Though their goal is strictly to survive, the film ponders the very point of living in such destitute conditions, a notion that the audience undoubtedly shares.
Trey Edward Shults directs the suspense required to maintain such a minimalistic setting and narrative with calculated precision, injecting the film with a strong sense of surrealism to convey the characters’ ever-increasing fears. He does this primarily by holding back as much as he can, concentrating the space of the action to provide an environment as controlled as possible and blurring the lines between reality and the characters’ own mental distress. Cameras revolve around two characters in conversation to express the tension between them and lone lights dimly illuminate several scenes to provide frames that are both artistically beautiful, yet terrifying for their exploitation of the unknown.
It Comes at Night is a film that is expertly controlled, as never does a single aspect of its production go to waste. It brutally explores the lengths to which one will protect their family and unlike many films that merely tease those lengths, what makes It Comes at Night such a visceral viewing experience is that it actually goes there. Though the grand scope of its survival themes are never directly addressed or explored, it remains visually decipherable through Shults’ meticulous craft, offering an experience that is unlikely to make its audience jump but is likewise, like any good horror film, unlikely to be forgotten.
Bonus Features: Director’s Feature Commentary, Human Nature: Creating It Comes At Night.
It Comes at Night DVD review by Orestes Adam.
It Comes At Night is available on UK DVD & Blu-ray now.