Review: Shults' Horror 'It Comes At Night' Deals in Existential Anxiety
Up-and-coming filmmaker Trey Edward Shults follows his acclaimed debut film Krisha with It Comes At Night, a psychological horror thriller centering on a teenage boy (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) as he faces mounting terrors — both external and internal — in the aftermath of an unnamed apocalypse. Surviving in a secluded, fortress-like home with his two parents, Paul (played by Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (played by Carmen Ejogo, also in Alien: Covenant), 17-year-old Travis is overwhelmed by fear, grief, and uncertainty after losing his grandfather to a mysterious plague responsible for the collapse of human civilization.
When a desperate man, Will (Christopher Abbott, seen in A Most Violent Year and Martha Marcy May Marlene), breaks into their home in search of clean water, the family goes into survival mode. Donning a gas mask and a rifle, Paul subdues the intruder and ties him to a tree outside. After interrogating him, Paul determines Will isn't infected and agrees to help him relocate his wife (Mad Max: Fury Road's Riley Keough) and child to their fortified abode in exchange for livestock and supplies. Travis, meanwhile, is plagued by nightmares that prophecise the end of his family's fragile existence.
Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over when they cohabitate. The horrors of the outside world, Shults argues, are nothing compared to the horrors within us. As Paul tells Travis, "You've never seen what people are like when they're desperate." The film is less concerned with its nondescript doomsday scenario and more focused on the monster within — the lengths to which people will go to protect the ones they love, even if it costs them their humanity. Of course, this isn't a new idea within post-apocalyptic fiction. Whether it's George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or AMC's The Walking Dead, the moral of these stories is the same: man is the most monstrous of all.
Hanging on the walls of the family home is a giclée of The Triumph of Death, a 1562 oil painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The painting shows a horde of skeletons wreaking havoc across a scorched landscape littered with corpses — a reflection on one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, the Black Death, which killed 30–60% of medieval Europe's population during the years 1346–1353. The painting and its subject matter are obviously a huge inspiration to It Comes At Night, which features a highly infectious disease characterized by bubonic plague-like symptoms, including festering boils and vomiting blood. We don't know what happens after someone gets sick in Shults' film, however, because they are killed immediately; their bodies burned to prevent the spread of disease. There are no reanimated human corpses or creatures to contend with here, just Death itself. And as Bruegel's painting illustrates, everyone — peasant and king alike — eventually succumbs to the same uncaring hand of Death.
A study in paranoia and fear, Shults' It Comes At Night is a well-crafted, perfectly paced memento mori that pulsates with dread, but stumbles over its suspenseful storytelling to reach a nonconclusion. Most of the horror on display in Shults' film comes in the form of dreams that, while haunting and evocative, are more like asides than part of the narrative. As a result, the movie feels like nothing more than an elaborate tease, suggesting a few things while confirming nothing at all. Filmmakers, especially those operating in the indie horror space, love these non-endings because they make viewers think about the film and draw their own conclusions. It's a surefire way to make sure your psychological thriller is seen as both "nuanced" and "provocative," without having to deliver a satisfying end to the story you've been telling for 97 minutes.
Despite its unfulfilling finish, there's a lot to appreciate in Shults' utterly bleak movie. The writer-director previously served as an intern on three of Terrence Malick's films — Weightless, Voyage of Time, The Tree of Life — and certainly picked up a thing or two from the impenetrable filmmaker, whose works often serve as meditations on life, death, and man’s place in the natural world. Cinematographer Drew Daniels' steadicam glides through thickets and lush forests, channeling Malick's particular brand of nature porn. Inside the family fortress, he explores dark, impossibly long corridors with the stark light of a single lantern, illuminating a carmine-colored door that serves as the only way in or out. This sumptuous imagery, coupled with Brian McOmber's unnerving score, elevates an otherwise stock survival horror story to high art.
As for the cast, Edgerton, Ejogo, Abbott, and Keough turn in fine performances, but it's 22-year-old Kelvin Harrison Jr. who carries the movie. Seen previously in 2016's The Birth of a Nation and History Channel's Roots miniseries, Harrison interweaves grief, paranoia, and terror with kindness and sensitivity to create a character we identify with — a good person stuck in dire circumstances, desperately trying to hold onto his humanity in a world that punishes empathy and promotes distrust. It's just too bad that there isn't anything particularly novel or illuminating about the story itself. It asks the same question that lies at the heart of every post-apocalyptic fiction: "Am I willing to do unspeakable things in order to survive and if so, will I have anything left to live for?" In the case of It Only Comes At Night, the answer is yes… and no.
Adam's Rating: 3 out of 5
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