New Review: 'It Comes at Night' (2017)
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Christopher Abbot, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner, and David Pendleton
Writer and director Trey Edward Shults has stated in interviews that It Comes At Night was written as a way of coping with his father’s death. “It’s the closest I’ve come to death,” he said in an interview that’s posted on the website Uproxx. It makes sense then that the movie opens with a young woman speaking words of comfort to her father, who’s dying from a catastrophic virus that’s taken out much of the world. “It’s okay,” she tells him. “You can let go.” She’ll say these words again near the end of the film, but under far more tragic circumstances.
Because the movie is bookended with the “You can let go” line, as well as a metaphorical shot of one character with a lantern walking down a dark hallway to a red door that’s the only way in and out of the film’s main set, it becomes clear what the “It” of the movie’s title is in reference to. It’s not some monster or zombie; rather, it’s something far more terrifying. It’s something which cannot be defeated, and which eventually and unexpectedly comes for us all, “like a thief in the night” (to quote the Good Book).
It makes for a deeply personal and harrowing story, but one thing needs to be made clear. In spite of its title and the creepy trailers, It Comes at Night is not a horror movie. There are times where it goes for terror, but every single one of its efforts are thwarted by the film’s overuse of the “it was only a dream” cliché (it gets positively maddening when we get the ol’ “dream-within-a-dream” routine). It works best as a family drama, and a tale about the horrifying lengths people will go to protect the ones they love.
The majority of the movie takes place in a boarded-up house in the woods, where ex-school teacher Paul (Joel Edgerton) lives with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and family dog Stanley. After the harrowing opening scene where Paul wheelbarrows his father-in-law out into the woods and euthanizes him, the family hears someone breaking into their house later that evening, and that's when they encounter Will (Christopher Abbot). He says he was simply looking for food to feed his family, although Paul leaves him tied up to a tree for a whole day to make sure that he’s not infected.
Once convinced, Paul invites Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to stay in his house, on the condition that they help out around the house. While Travis seems attracted to the free-spirited Kim, things seem to work out just fine with the two families living under the same roof. At least, for a while that is.
Out of the five characters in the house, the two who captured my interest the most were Paul and Will. Both are decent men who love their families and would do anything to protect them, and in a terrifically written and acted moment between the two men, we get the sense that both have had to do things to protect the ones they love that they normally wouldn’t do (as misleading as the trailers are, the tagline “fear turns men into monsters” is chillingly appropriate for this film). This is especially true of Will, who is caught in a lie he told Paul about staying with his brother. As awful as the things are that we see them do, it’s to the credit of Edgerton and Abbot that we remain invested and sympathetic toward the two men.
The women in the film are even better, with Ejogo turns in a heart-breaking performance as Sarah and Keough creating a haunting figure out of her Kim (and the blood-curdling scream she lets out in the end hit me with the force of a sledgehammer to the gut). Harrison, Jr. is in the majority of the scenes, and he carries himself very well, proving himself to be charismatic enough of an actor to be leading man material.
Shults works with his talented behind-the-scenes crew to create a sumptuously atmospheric visual feast, with the highlight being Karen Murphy’s elegant production design, Naomi Monroe’s stunning art direction, and Sally Levi’s excellent set-decoration. With their work, the house itself and the woods surrounding it almost become like extra characters. Shults also manages to craft a couple of bitingly suspenseful sequences (such as when Paul and Will are attacked during a drive through the woods), and while Shults’ decision to leave so many questions unanswered gets to be frustrating at times, sometimes it works to the movie’s advantage. Not telling us what attacked Stanley after the mutt ran into the woods does add weight to the movie’s bleak and deeply lacerating final shot.
Now about that final shot. I think it’s the perfect conclusion to the movie. In fact, I can’t see the movie ending in any other way. While the movie is not really scary, that final shot does end with the characters coming to the terrifying and sad realization that no matter what you’re willing to do to protect your family, there are just some things in the world that you can never protect them from.
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)
Rated R for violence, blood, disturbing images, language