Released 2017. Director: Trey Edward Shults
IN THE PAST YEAR, ALL OF US HAVE BEEN UNDER LOCKDOWN or quarantine of some kind. This shared experience of being made to confined to your home with restricted access to the outside world brings added resonance when viewing It Comes At Night, which was made well before our current pandemic. The situation depicted in the movie is very much on the extreme end of the scale. In comparison, no matter how harsh you might consider your own situation, it’s paradise compared with the plague in the movie.
There’s no clear explanation of what has happened though it’s quickly established that whatever it is out there, it’s highly contagious. In the opening scene, we see Joel Edgerton’s character Paul takes a gun and finishes off his own infected father-in-law before dumping the body in a hole and burning it, wearing gloves and a gas mask. You don't want to catch what's out there; you get sick and your skin blisters. You’d kill your own family to stop the spread.
Paul, his wife Sarah and teenage son Travis isolate themselves inside their home in the woods, completely boarded up to prevent anyone or anything from entering. Contact with the outside world is clearly non-existent. Human encounters are fraught with lethal consequences. What’s happened to the world? Who knows? Before long the desolate calm is shattered when an intruder breaks in one night. Spared of his life and having convinced Paul he’s not infected, the stranger named Will takes Paul to his wife and young son, hidden some distance away. The journey is not without danger. Spotted by gun-wielding survivors, the men are fired upon but manage to kill their attackers and make it back to the house.
The two families must now negotiate some kind of truce and trust in order to stay alive on limited food and water. But for how long? In the short amount of time writer-director Shults uses to effectively sketch out their personalities, these are fundamentally decent folk doing their best to survive a horror situation. Which only makes it more dramatic and harrowing when they turn on each other, a predictable yet wholly riveting plot progression.
It Comes At Night is a tight, taut and dark vision on the inevitable (and one might argue necessary) selfishness of the self-preservation of your own family. The build-up and atmosphere created by Shults is arresting and all-encompassing, pulling you into the anxiety-ridden doomsday living like heavy clouds closing in overhead. Once the characters are established and we settle into a fragile sense of peace, you can almost hear the clock ticking, counting down to the inescapable moment when the worst case imaginable will erupt.
Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels have an eye for gloom aesthetics. Our eyes are led down dark hallways with invisible end. Illumination from a moving lantern rearranges shadows. The physical (and metaphorical) set-up of the surroundings and the interiors are simple but effective. A house hidden among the trees, the dark rooms, suspicions and distrust, dangers that may lurk in every corner, a recurring nightmare involving bloody vomits and dripping goo, the tension between altruism and survival instincts.
The two sets of characters bear an uncanny symmetry. Paul and Will are the protectors, the wives Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Kim (Riley Keogh), and the two boys all have crucial parts to play in how their individual fate pans out. Like inter-connected domino bricks, when one falls, it’s too late to stop a chain reaction.
The horror in It Comes at Night is both the physical and psychological kind. Shults milks every bit he can out of the terrific setting, serving up the expected (but no less effectively delivered) genre troupes, as well as busting out of the box for a few bolder choices in sharpening the mounting suspense.
The story doesn’t explain how it all began or suggest how it might end – that’s not the concern at all. But what happens in the middle, that’s the part full of possibility for a storyteller. What happens when humans are left without support and trust is scarce? Can you trust strangers around you to do the right thing that won’t cause harm to your family? “I don’t think we can take that chance” is a spine-tingling line in this context, spoken at a moment of grave decision-making. Decent people find themselves trapped in a corner. How they live with their conscience is the true horror that comes after.
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