It Comes at Night (2017) is a psychological horror/thriller written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. It follows the small family of Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who are hiding out in an isolated cabin as a mysterious virus ravages the outside world. When they find a desperate figure (Christopher Abbott) breaking in, their tenuous family order must contend with how they should deal with outsiders.
This is only director Shults’ second film, but you’d hardly know it by the deftness he manages to pull off Night. While the story is simple and relatively straightforward, Shults manages to imbue it with a level of creeping tension and dread that keeps the film engaging even when its steady pace might dissuade less patient viewers. Shults has a strong control over the camera as well, shooting Night in an unobtrusive and very organic way – the cinematography is beautiful and yet subtle, and is all built around developing the tension. On top of that, the film manages to weave in some interesting metaphor and ideas that’s going to stick with you much longer than any anxiety is.
That being said, not all of Shults’ decisions pay off. There’s a couple of ham-fisted jump scares that do little more than frustrate, and the more serious problem of the constant crutch of dream sequences. When used right they can inform on the main story in interesting ways, but not only do these sequences feel like an excuse to put in more traditionally horror elements, they feel ancillary and honestly wouldn’t have made much of a difference if most of them were cut. The ending is also worth mentioning as well, as Shults makes a very deliberate decision that’s likely to piss off most viewers. While I can understand that, I think its a bold move that fits in perfectly with the themes of the movie – even if the decision almost feels like a cliche at this point.
This film also works with a relatively small cast, which thankfully leads to there being nary a poor performance amongst them. Edgerton’s turn as Paul isn’t anything revolutionary for the actor but the character itself is given some interesting dimensions that defy his archetype. Harrison Jr. is also excellent as Travis, who honestly turns into the de-facto protagonist. While his character initially feels a little stilted and underdeveloped, he takes on a few interesting layers as the tension builds. However, the same can’t be said for Ejogo as Sarah, who feels sorely underused compared to the rest of the cast. As for Christopher Abbott’s character, the less you know about him the better, but lets just say he does a great job in a somewhat difficult role.
It Comes at Night is likely to piss people off. Others will find very little to enjoy in this bleak, dense affair. But to others who appreciate almost Hitchcockian tension and just solid movie-making, there’s a lot to like in Night. Dream sequences aside, Shults acts as a deft hand that has managed to build not only a relatively effective thriller, but also a deceivingly complex movie that’s going to leave you with more than just a chill running down your spine.
General Audiences: Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended
Cultists: Highly Recommended