Despite the promises of a lurid sounding, B-movie drive-in title, It Comes At Night doesn’t have zombies, there are no ghosts, and no crazed creatures lurking within protective daytime shadows that emerge once the sun sets. The film is terrifying, and what has happened in the world is the very essence of horror, but It Comes At Night is psychological horror, and its audience, at least its American home-based audience, will probably be less mainstream and more art-house.
Something has happened in the outside world. We don’t know what, we don’t know how. But the result of whatever occurred is the stuff of nightmares. From Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family’s point of view, all they know is this: There’s a terrible virus out there and it’s killed almost everyone. The infection comes swiftly. You catch it from another, either from breathing the same air or by body sweat from a simple touch, and the symptoms are immediate. You cough, you vomit, you quickly develop skin sores – imagine a medieval plague – and you slowly die. It’s truly the apocalypse, and it’s closing in.
The first time we see the results of the infection is in the opening shot. Paul’s father-in-law has it. The family live in an isolated cabin in the woods, and it’s this very isolation that has kept them alive. They’re secluded, hidden, living a claustrophobic existence behind boarded windows and padlocked doors, but, still, the virus has found its way, and the elderly man has somehow caught it.
Without the knowledge of what has happened in the world, what follows may initially seem like an act of cruelty, but for Paul it’s a non-negotiable, necessary step for everyone’s survival. Action needs to be taken before whatever is eating away at the father-in-law passes on to everyone else. Paul and his seventeen year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) don gas masks, wrap the still breathing, plague-infested old man in tarpaulin, wheel him out of the house to a hole in the ground, cover his face, where he is then shot. Once rolled into the hole, his body is burned; the dark fumes of the fire rising up among the trees of the surrounding, dense woodland, unintentionally signaling where everyone is hiding.
What is now left of the family in their holed-up cabin is Paul, son Travis, and Paul’s wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), plus the family dog, Stanley. What’s interesting is this is a racially-mixed marriage, though curiously it’s never mentioned, nor is it used as a plot point. The other family that will soon become part of the story never mention it, either.
In the middle of the night, an intruder breaks in, perhaps attracted to the area by viewing the dark fumes of that earlier fire rising up out of the woods, though it’s merely another father from another desperate family, looking for water. Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their little boy, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) prove to be just as ignorant to what has happened out there in the real world, plus, they’re not plague-carriers. After hesitation, Paul allows the family to stay in their secluded home. Maybe there’s safety in numbers.
But Paul still has his rules that can’t be broken. There’s only one way in and out of the house, and that door is padlocked. No one goes out at night, and if you have to leave the house during the day, then it’s always in twos. Plus, paranoia is ever increasing. Once the new family settle into their room, Paul pulls his son aside. “Keep it in perspective,” he quietly tells young Travis. “Can’t trust anyone but family.”
The It of It Comes at Night might be interpreted in several ways, but its overall meaning could be the unstoppable nightmares that young Travis experiences each restless night. One night his nightmare might be that of his virus-ridden Grandpa seated in the bedroom, silently watching him, or later it’s the dream of an adolescent being seduced by the young, attractive wife of the new family, starting off as a horny fantasy then turning into the horrific passing of the plague from one to another. Most of the action takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the home where the sound of any unusual noise results with Paul leaping from his bed, grabbing his rifle with the flashlight attached to the end, and slowly creeping along the passages in search of whatever may or may not have entered their cabin in the woods, his wife and son following behind.
We don’t know much about Paul, he’s understandably tightly wound, secretive, and not one for conversation with those he’s not sure he can trust. But in a brief moment when his guard is down, he tells Will he was once a school teacher. “You want to know about the Roman Empire, I’m your guy,” he smiles. For the record, Will tells Paul he was in construction, and for a moment it feels as though the two fathers and their families living under the same roof may be bonding, but as events unfold, and Paul’s anxiety and fear develops into exaggerated distrust, and boils to a point of dangerous delusion, irrationality kicks in. There’s horror, but the horror is all human, and that sense of claustrophobia eventually becomes all enveloping when even the frame of the film’s widescreen ratio appears to be closing in, as if the roof is lowering and the floor is rising, narrowing the view
As for audience reaction, there will be those who’ll undoubtedly admire the film’s craft, while others will leave disturbed, and not altogether entertained or satisfied. It’s worth noting that at an advanced local screening attended by both press and regular movie-goers, when one attendee was asked for his opinion, he waved a dismissive arm at the movie rep with the clipboard, and with a morose expression as he walked away, said that he didn’t want to talk about it.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, with convincing, haunted performances from the small cast, the film is a long, dark, slow-paced, uncomfortable ride. It’s like watching the stretching of an elastic band that keeps on stretching, inches from your face; you flinch and continue to do so in the anticipation of a snap that is yet to come. Fear and mistrust spreads throughout the cabin as fast as the virus itself. And, yes, there really is a monster, but it doesn’t come at night, it comes from within, and it’s face is all too human.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 97 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)