Most studios have the same mindset when it comes to horror films. Move a few doors with strings, have a woman bend backwards while screaming, blame it all on a ghost, and go straight to the bank. Frankly, it makes me feel as dead inside as the ghosts themselves. Thank the heavens for A24, who have come out and championed Trey Edward Shults’ bone chilling It Comes at Night. This is a film that has no interest in what external forces threaten our characters. We know that something cataclysmic has happened and that there is a deadly disease afoot but all of that is more for window dressing. Within that loose framework, a powerful tragedy centered around human nature unfolds, and it’s terrifying.
We’re practically suffocated with dread from the moment the film starts. Shults establishes a world that may not have been blown up by explosions but has been stripped of virtually all humanity. When we meet Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) we discover that the only way to survive is by routine. We’re never told exactly what they’re supposed to be avoiding besides a deadly disease, making each corner of the frame feel even more foreboding. This tension only escalates when Will (Christopher Abbott) and Kim (Riley Keough) find themselves moving into the house, as Paul’s family is consistently unsure of their motives and health.
Shults has crafted a film that meshes the trauma-fueled family dynamics of The Road with the geographically isolated delirium of The Shining. All of our characters are both terrifying and terrified, as their base instincts and bonds with each other drive their actions. Edgerton, in one of his best performances to date, is a commanding yet empathetic presence. Here’s a man who has had to become stern and calculating in order to survive but he’s not the authoritarian psychopath that one might find in a film like 10 Cloverfield Lane. For every moment of cruelty, there’s another of kindness and we get the feeling that he, deep down, prefers the later. Kelvin Harrison Jr. makes a huge impression as Travis, who starts to have horrific nightmares about the people and the world around him. He becomes the centerpiece of the tension and Harrison Jr completely sells the terror.
The screenplay, written by Shults, perfectly rides the line between effective minimalism and pretentious inhumanity. Often, when a film wants to feel otherworldly and atmospheric, the characters will speak in a very stilted, caustic manner. This ends up undercutting the emotional impact, as we feel like we’re just watching things happen to a director’s props. It Comes At Night is by no means a dialogue driven film but when the characters are talking, they sound like real people with personalities and imperfections. In a film that thrives on paranoia, this balance is so key and gives the actors plenty of room to breathe.
Shults’ craftsmanlike approach to storytelling is perfectly tailored to this material. He masterfully rides the film’s slow burn, tying a knot in our stomachs even when nothing dramatic is happening on screen. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of pacing by saying that “nothing happens,” but that isn’t the case at all. Many little things are happening to ratchet up to a gut punch, with each little piece sending us closer to our doom. Drew Daniels’ claustrophobic cinematography takes the cast-off, confined space of this small house and turns it into a pressure cooker. We’re never quite sure what the geometry of this place is, so anxiety looms around every corner.
It Comes At Night is certainly not for everybody, especially those expecting the bombastic scare-fest that the trailer suggests. Instead, it’s a powerhouse drama about what families are willing to do to protect each other. Shults is certainly a talent to watch, seeming to be on a similar trajectory to Robert Eggers after The Witch. If you’ve got a little patience and a lot of emotional stamina, it is well worth spending a night at the theater.