In general, horror remains a genre that seems to be crawling from the dark, grasping for credibility. Perhaps it always will be, even with a recent string of annual and challenging triumphs like The Babadook, It Follows, and especially last year’s delightfully sinful The Witch. A24, which released that crone in the forest chiller, returns to the woods in hopes of elevating the form again with It Comes at Night, another arthouse-horror hybrid that drives even further toward a lyrical sense of abstract dread. Previously viewers were assured there at least was a witch or an “it.” But the titular “it” of Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night is entirely esoteric—and possibly more potent in what it reaps.
It’s the paranoia that takes over once the mind realizes you’re in a nightmare trapped inside a night terror, that has been buried under an overwhelming sense of perpetual anxiety. And in terms of attempting to create a character-based thriller with genuinely erudite aspirations about mortality, Shults has crafted a very admirable and challenging piece of cinema. But it’s also one that enthralls while never truly ensnaring the audience or their fears.
The simplicity of the premise is that an unknown and inexplicable disease has created the kind of post-apocalyptic landscape that is AMC’s current bread and butter. There are no zombies (that we know about), aliens, or apes running amok. There are merely hints of a virus so severe that it becomes contagious through faint physical contact.
Deep in the woods and apparently years into this living oblivion, Paul and Sarah (Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo) raise their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as best they can. But only with a dog for company, Travis has little to hold onto and even less to hope for. So it’s at least curious when a stranger one day appears claiming he’s named Will (Christopher Abbott). This Will is also a family man with a wife called Kim (Riley Keough) and a small son of his own who’s little more than an infant.
Both families appear to be good people muddling through this horror, but their knowledge of the other’s existence becomes an instant bond and point of suspicion. Even if neither clan is infected, they both know about the others’ supplies—and the possibility of gaining them at gunpoint. So the seeming act of Christian charity by Paul and Sarah to let Will’s younger family stay in their home is both virtuous and a form of tacit extortion. We won’t ruin things for you if you don’t make a hassle for us.
And during the day, it is a relatively idyllic situation. One with neighbors and fellowship in dark times. Yet darker still it becomes as night falls, and paranoid dreams take a haunting grip on each person’s psyche. There might be something outside their double locked doors; there might not. It’s almost moot when you’re not even sure who you’re sharing space with underneath the same roof—or you have the gnawing sensation of death all around.
The appeal of It Comes at Night is its listless and largely unspoken tension. Beyond an early and nearly violent confrontation between Paul and Will, much of the rest of the movie is a story about how horrific ideas truly derive from the human and mundane. In this context, all of the actors are given much to chew on as the doom and gloom builds, and they pretend not to notice the Grim Reaper as silent seventh castmate.
Edgerton is especially tortured. As his backstory unfurls, it becomes clear the rustic survivalist is a coat that never truly fit, and the gas mask will always stay askew on his educated face. It is really in his and Ejogo’s moments of normalcy, and trying to connect with their son while teaching him morality and their cynical, contradictory practicalities that the movie most engages.
Watching the day-to-day life of these characters, such as young Travis’ uncontrollable and unspoken longing for the first and only woman who is not his mother he might’ve seen in years, add up to moments of candid authenticity and indie integrity. It’s unfortunately the genre elements where the movie is found lacking.
The brief but labored running time inevitably climbs to a toweringly bleak slice of nihilism for its finale, and as every line of dialogue from each adult becomes questionable and prone to suspicion, the longing for them to amount to a true triumph only grows. But Shults resists that narrative instinct, instead electing to force audiences to dwell on the atmosphere and dissect an admittedly devastating ending. Still if horror is meant to be a catharsis for our primal anxieties, the fears Shults plays so well have little payoff or transcendence here. They are merely well-called upon tools that manipulate and tease, but are not all that ultimately different from an episode of The Walking Dead, sans the zombies.
It is a commendable work of art that refuses every impulse to actually look in that dark for a proverbial witch of the woods. Still it is hard to conceive the most commercial of genre audiences being enamored with the film’s otherwise hypnotic spell. Not when it so defiantly chooses to never utter it or unleash the terrible magic Shults has conjured in his gripping, if ever-overcast, vision.