Synopsis – Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, a man has established a tenuous domestic order with his wife and son. Then a desperate young family arrives seeking refuge.
My Take – I understand the backlash this film has been receiving from the general film going audience, mainly as the film was completely mismarketed as just another run of the mill horror film. A decision probably taken by the studio executives to secure a wide theatrical release, which it surely wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and of course to bait the more casual audience that was expecting to watch a straight up horror film so tremendously crafted in its trailers. The film is not by any stretch close to that, truth be told I wouldn’t even consider it a horror film at all, and more of a psychological thriller. More in the veins of the style presented in low key films like The Witch, Into the Forest, and Maggie, who had much more to offer in the way of a genuine impact, the film is more of a paranoia suspense or thriller with some family drama mixed in and is at its best when it is ignoring the flashy set pieces and instead focuses on an all encompassing feeling of dread that slowly consumes the characters. Admittedly, there are quite a few good things about the film, and a few missteps made into exploitation of the zombie inspired horror can be forgiven because of the feeling of complete loss that we feel throughout the film, yet, the film isn’t as exemplary as the latter films, largely because writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) fails to capitalize on the possibilities that his basic premise offered, even on a minimalist scale. The story follows Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their seventeen year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his grandfather Bud (David Pendleton) live a reclusive life in an isolated cabin in the woods in a post apocalyptic future.
However, when Bud contracts the mysterious disease that wiped out the world, the family is forced to put him down and burn his body. At the night, an invader named Will (Christopher Abbott), tries to break in their house and they dominate the man and leave him tied to a tree in quarantine to know whether he is sick or not. A couple of days later, they find the stranger is healthy and explains that he left his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their infant son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) in an abandoned house to seek for water and food. Paul and Sarah invite him to bring his wife and son to live with them so that they could protect each other. On the arrival, Paul explains the rules of his house to the couple and they share the labor and supplies. But paranoia about disease and the outside menace arrive in the house affecting the lives of the two families. As I mentioned before, the film has been mistakenly marketed as a horror film. Make no mistake; while the film certainly produces some effective moments of dread and terror, it plays more like a marriage between a psychological thriller and a family drama, if you typically enjoy psychological thrillers or if you enjoy a film that has a deeper meaning than your average film, then you will probably like this one. The film certainly delivers something different, creatively misleading the audience and breaking expectations. The set-up is pretty simple, intending to recall a host of recent films in our zombie-filled entertainment climate: a disease has killed off a decent chunk of humanity, with the survivors living in isolated patches off the grid. The first half hour is spent detailing the post-apocalyptic scenario that Paul’s family lives in: their house which is almost completely boarded up except for a couple of doors, how they deal with the expiry of Sarah’s dad Bud and the entry of an outsider who seeks water for his wife and their young son. We are shown afterwards the lifestyle to which the family has already grown accustomed: food grown in the garden, reserves of fresh water, Jeep in the garage, at least one rifle, gas masks, etc. Doors kept locked/barred on the inside, and no-one to go out alone or after dark. Despite not being a “horror” film, the film does an incredible job building and maintaining suspense, creating an atmosphere that’s unsettling and uneasy for nearly its entire duration. Each slow dolly move towards a door increases anxiety and though we never get the big jump scares that normal filmgoers would expect, we’re never left off the hook. What’s great about this film is that the paranoia doesn’t let up. Director Trey Edward Shults fills the film with disturbing dreams and darkness, never giving us enough clarity to be calm and satisfied. Many have expressed anger at this, saying that as a writer Shults opens too many doors and has no solutions for how they got that way. I personally loved it. This is a kind of film where it doesn’t really matter why things are happening, what matters is what they are revealing about us. While I do like films that don’t spell everything out, the script is so paper-thin that some details would’ve been nice to support the actions of the characters. Starting a film in media res can be a powerful storytelling tool if executed correctly, but here it feels like an excuse to not explain things. I wish we could’ve seen the family dynamic, even if just for one flashback, before the disease hit. It could’ve provided some extra depth and contrast to their present-day personalities because for all we know, they could have been paranoid, gun wielding people before the disease plagued the country. If their horrific actions are a result of their environment, seeing how they’ve changed since their environment changed would’ve been immensely beneficial. It’s just hard to ignore the somewhat bare-bones plot. In a more concise film, this story could’ve been told in about 45 minutes, with another 45 minutes of additional plot.
It ends up feeling more like an extended 2nd act, rather than a complete film. What is safe to say is that the film displays two attributes of quality scriptwriting: the characters behave in a logical and understandable manner given the circumstances they face, while at the same time the story feints and distracts, leading the audience down an unexpected path. The film’s very title is meant to suggest the question “What actually comes at night?” which the filmmakers treat as an opportunity to deny anticipation by avoiding straightforward answers. Another bothersome technique that weighed down the film was its reliance on Travis’s dream sequences to either fill time, provide more tense moments, or to help with the horror style trailer. But those nightmares should motivate Travis to take action in some way. Otherwise, it just feels like a rinse and repeat. A few jump scares aside, there’s not much in the film to brand it within the horror category. Yes, there’s a bit of a tense mood in the household since it remains unclear how much of the information Will has revealed to Paul’s family is true/untrue. The viewer is left perplexed on quite a few occasions as well. The unanswered list is just a tad too big for the film to be liked whole-heartedly: there’s a seemingly romantic/sexual angle between Travis and Kim left unexplored (after a certain scene), there’s an episode where Paul and Will sit down over a drink and suspicion is raised when Will almost utters something that doesn’t quite fit with what he’d told earlier (but this is completely ignored later on), plus, what did the family dog see and hear that made it rush off into the woods? What are those ominous noises heard after sunset? How did the dog make its way back inside after dark? Who or how did that always locked door get open if the little boy couldn’t reach the knob? The real question becomes, who poses the real danger; the original family or the newcomers? There is always the threat of violent outsiders, or the virus making an appearance. The two men bond after a period of uneasy alliance; how long will this tenuous bond last, when things start looking askew? Now, I do appreciate films which rely on implied horror as much as the regular ones, but here, even the implication fades out way too soon for the viewer to feel a sense of dread, especially in the final portions. The climactic showdown is definitely not what one would expect, but all it leaves is a bitter aftertaste, not fitting into the grand scheme of things. Yet, I must say I loved how this film was shot. Rather than big sweeping establishing shots or use of vivid color, the focus is right on the characters. The frame is often filled with a character’s face; the film not allowing you to back away from what they’re experiencing. However, the reason the film mildly works rests solely on the shoulders of the performers, who sink themselves entirely into their roles. Joel Edgerton is the standout here, continuing to impress with every film of his that I watch. As the film goes on, Edgerton brilliantly communicates the fear and paranoia required of him. Kelvin Harrison Jr. was equally impressive. Despite Edgerton receiving top billing, the soul of the story lies with his character, Travis. While Carmen Ejogo delivers a great performance as Paul’s wife Sarah, Shults‘ screenplay falls a tad short when it comes to her characterization. Riley Keough continues to impress with her excellent range. Christopher Abbott also does a stellar job. On the whole, ‘It Comes at Night’ is a claustrophobic low-budget paranoid psychological thriller with a promising beginning and an underwhelming conclusion.
Directed – Trey Edward Shults
Rated – R
Run Time – 91 minutes