We’ll start with the obvious. It Comes at Night is a poor title for a film in which nothing actually comes during the night. Sure, that title probably gestures at a more ethereal, experiential horror. Like, it is at night that fear takes hold, or maybe paranoia, perhaps if we’re taking the most literal path it could be the nightmares that our protagonist Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is unable to escape from. But, you know, to be as reductive as possible, there ain’t no It which is coming. At least if anyone ever decides to make a porn-parody they don’t got to spend much time workshopping that title.
Once you’ve got over that though, you realise ain’t nothing going to come at night that already in the air during the day, and can come to accept the movie on its own terms it reveals itself to be a tight little pearl of a movie. Instead of some monster flick it’s a cabin fever joint. Some mysterious disease appears to have struck America, the cities are unsafe and this country family accepts a young couple and their child into their home but despite everyone’s best intentions they can’t never be sure how far to extend that hand of trust.
Film opens with them euthanizing grandpa. The disease seems easily communicable, seems real like to fuck you up. Pretty obvious too, all over your eyes face and skin. Like all these slow-apocalypse movies we see the threat has extended to humans too. Desperate people roving the land ready enough to kill in order to ensure their safety. Trey Edward Schults seems to have a poor view of humans, but he also seems to be in love with them.
It’s a tender a good approach to his material. He refrains from casting judgement on his marauders, there’s this bit where they attack outta nowhere. In his construction of this setpiece Schultz chooses to deliberately decontextualize the actions of the fighting parties. In keeping the point of view squarely locked into Joel Egerton’s character the action is divorced from a traditional moral framework. When these two dudes killed they appear in no way different from those who killed them. They’re dragged into the forest to rot, the film refrains from commenting.
It’s the same with the stuff inside the house. As the fear starts to set in he is content to afford his characters time. The film takes its time for the most part, allows us to hang in these moments of contentment and uncertainty and dread. There a lot of dread, whenever the film turns to night, he chooses to light the world with flashlights and the blazing glow of the magnificent electric lantern. He makes the shadows long and the narrow hallways of the house with its mirrors and the glossy paint on that super production designy red door become super expressionistic.
He also does the thing which he does in Krisha, his first (and at this point only other) feature, of screwing around with the shape of the frame in order to try suggest the feel of the piece. It’s honestly one of the least interesting things he do with the picture. I mean, I suppose it was working until I started noticing it, but unlike Krisha the frame ain’t dictating the content of the piece, it’s just trying to dictate the audience and it feel like a crutch the dude leaning on.
Would be bad if that was all that the flick were doing, but what he and cinematographer Drew Daniels do with the camera is great and totally don’t need undermining with all that shit. He got this commitment to shooting a claustrophobia piece all wide angles. He for the most part eschews close-ups and isolating his characters in a frame. He make all these editing choices with the direct intent of bringing these characters together rather than distancing them.
There bits where he teases us too, this whole suggestion that two characters are going to make a spectacularly stupid unwise decision is averted. Then different characters make a spectacularly stupid wise decision. There’s something to be said here about togetherness and separation. How the construction serves to isolate our leads from the world. Even when out in the wild they wearing these heavy gasmasks, literally erecting a barrier between them and the others. They live in a house all boarded up. When people are able to connect the world be going right, when they find themselves unable to is when everything get shit right up.
That a good message, a nice one, even for a film that finds its conclusion in the darkness that this one do. For all the time and care it takes in the slow build, it certainly gets where it need to. The ending had me thrown back stunned. Matthew Hannam, who joins Schults at the editing desk really takes the construction of this nightmare imagery they create in the dream sequences and throws it into a conclusion that becomes a waking horror. The structure and logic of time falling away as the interior world of our characters dissolves.
Joel Edgerton is a great pull for this movie, I mean he got an exec producer credit here so you get a sense he went pretty all in. He’s just the right guy to be bringing this patriarch onto the stage he got the right face for it. It ain’t a star vehicle though Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, and relative newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr. who should by all rights blow up after this one bring their A game to the project too. It’s a cheap movie and the best special effect you can get is a face believably stricken with terror, and these folks sell it perfectly.
Which I think is like Shults secret strength. In his first film he rang workable performances outta nonprofessional actors, now he be getting these great performances from established ones. He’s great at this character work and has the stylistic chops to ground it in a recognisable political framework. Let’s hope he gets a few more in before Disney snatches him for a Marvel.
It Comes at Night is currently screening in UK cinemas