MOVIE REVIEW: It Comes at Night
IT COMES AT NIGHT-- 4 STARS
An emotional woman in a gas mask is hugging an ill elderly man tightly in an effort to say goodbye. The man, covered in lesions and straining for breath, is her father. Her teen son takes a moment to attempt similar closure for something both he and we do not fully understand. The older gentleman’s fate when he is taken outside the house and into the woods begins the haunting dread that cloaks Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night, a superb cerebral test of mental fortitude following his breakout film of Krisha.
Eschewing any steady intravenous drips of exposition, something bigger and apocalyptic is at play. An airborne viral contagion with sudden physical signs has crippled society and civilization to the point where people are scattered and scrounging for resources and safety. Paul (Golden Globe nominee Joel Edgerton) is the patriarch of the one family which includes the previously introduced wife Sarah (Selma’s Carmen Ejogo) and his son Travis (fast-rising newcomer Kevin Harrison, Jr.). Through strict routines and precautions, the rightfully paranoid Paul is trying to maintain safety and domestic order inside their expansive, boarded-up woodland home during these dangerous times.
Their miniscule amount of hopeless solace is interrupted by the arrival of an unsick intruder named Will (the superb Christopher Abbott) trying to find food and water. The family takes pity on the man when they discover he has a wife (Riley Keough) and young son (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Paul invites Will and his family to stay with them and merge resources against the unseen possibilities of peril.
Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott are a welcome, yet uneasy alliance of characters and talents. Edgerton continues to expand his resume of stalwart performances after Loving, Midnight Special, and his own directorial and starring efforts in The Gift. Concurrently, Abbott deserves a bigger audience springboard after the indie gem and festival darling James White and this equally solid performance. However, this is not entirely a plight of fathers.
Our chief observer through all of this suspenseful vulnerability is Kevin Harrison, Jr.’s Travis. His visualized nightmares, voyeuristic presence, and mounting fear soaks much of the lantern-lit atmosphere. The young actor shoulders the burden well. Though the film is marketed as a horror film, Drew Daniels’ natural and static cinematography is paced by the unnerving musical score of Brian McOmber to brew a foundation of madness that is lean and sharply conceived from credits to credits without cheesy gore or debilitating tropes.
Take the title of the film whatever way you wish, be it literally with the lurking threats of nightfall in this landscape or figuratively with the visions and nightmares one has while alone with their thoughts before sleeping. It Comes at Night is tightly comprised of excruciating moral challenges that escalate with time. One might ask how someone can convincingly convey jarring grimness such as this. Creators often cull from dark personal places as an outlet and answer to their need to express and create the difficult material they convey in projects like It Comes at Night. That is entirely the case here, and it is a place not everyone is going to be comfortable visiting.
Shults conceptualized It Comes at Night during a time of grieving, anxiety, and agitation after losing his father to pancreatic cancer, a man he was distant with before the end. Knowing those roots of inspiration greatly aids in digesting and appreciating this cinematic presentation. The entire film occupies a murky place of disquiet that is mesmeric and captivating all the same.
It Comes at Night operates with purposeful mystery to respect and challenge the intelligence of its audience to piece together its many open-ended and unanswered questions. Even with a fair bit of uneasy head-scratching, our minds fill in the blanks of the unseen and suggested likely in darker and more personal ways than any film can achieve explicitly. There is unmistakable power in that found in Shults’ film.
LESSON #1: TRUST FAMILY ABOVE ALL OTHERS-- Both Paul and Will (impressively through Joel and Christopher) express the rattled resolve of desperate fathers seeking to shield their families. When the rest of society breaks down, family becomes your closest connection to humanity. It is all that matters. Protect it.
LESSON #2: THE BRUTAL EFFECTS OF PARANOIA-- In this cataclysmic setting, processing the threats to survival and the fears of fatal sickness, all of which are unknown in their source and effects, will drive good folks insane. Paranoia on that level is dehumanizing, even when its rightful. It turns people on each other in brutal ways.
LESSON #3: THE FRAGILITY OF MORTALITY-- When people die for unexplained reasons, it emphasizes how delicate life is and how quickly it can be taken from people. Couple that tension with the aforementioned paranoia and minds can race on those worrisome thoughts. The helplessness that follows paralyze a soul.