Many critics are referring to It Comes at Night from writer/director Trey Edward Shults as the filmmaker’s “horror debut”. Evidently they missed Shults’ previous film Krisha, a frightening film about substance abuse and the ways our fellow family members can hurt us more than any stalker lurking in the woods ever could. Likewise, calling It Comes at Night a “horror film” may create a false set of expectations in its potential audience. It’s a chilling film that is drenched in a sense of dread, but it’s more akin to The Road (2009) than The Walking Dead.
The film opens in a world ravaged by a deadly disease. We’re not given enough of a time frame to call the setting post-apocalyptic, but we certainly seem to be headed in that direction. Paul (Joel Edgerton) is hauling his father-in-law into the woods in a wheelbarrow. The older man is clearly in the final stages of this modern-day plague. Paul gently places the man in an open grave, shoots him in the head and sets fire to the body. His son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) stands by and watches his grandfather’s final moments in silent shock.
That scene sets the tone for all that follows. It Comes at Night is an exercise in Darwinism. It’s survival of the fittest and even the fittest may hit a fatal patch of bad luck. Death is a matter-of-fact occurrence that must be dealt with swiftly, without hesitation. Exposure to a contaminated person could mean death for everyone in your family. Not too long into the film’s 95-minute run time, you’ll find yourself wondering if this is a life worth living. And that’s the entire point.
It Comes at Night isn’t concerned with the supernatural or things that go bump in the night. It’s more concerned with the evil that men do when the rule of law begins to break down. It is an exercise in paranoia and self-preservation. When another family stumbles upon Paul’s home, it is not a cause for celebration. It’s a reason for concern. No one outside your own family unit can be trusted. Friends? Social acquaintances? There are no such things in the world of It Comes at Night.
Having a stellar cast is essential to selling a concept that could easily come off as outlandish. Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough are rock solid as the adult members of the two families who cross paths in the film. But, the stand-out performance belongs to Kelvin Harrison, Jr. as the teen-aged son caught in the middle of the horrifying decisions being made by the adults in charge. He’s an adolescent who knows where he can hide in the house to eavesdrop on conversations, and he serves as the audience’s entry into this world gone mad. Harrison nails all the small moments in his performance and quickly becomes the emotional core of the film.
It seems a little early in his career to call Trey Edward Shults a “master craftsman”, but It Comes at Night is a visually stunning film. Circumstances that would cause most filmmakers to break out in a cold sweat (shooting in confined spaces, lighting extended night-time sequences) don’t seem to phase the young writer/director. He’s already a filmmaker to keep an eye on. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does next.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.