By Sam Inglis
In the woods, somewhere in the US, Paul, Sarah and their son Travis (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr) have sheltered themselves in their house. A deadly plague has swept through the country. They are among the survivors, and trying to remain that way. One night they hear a noise and discover Will (Christopher Abbott), who says he thought the house was empty and was looking for supplies for his wife Kim and young son Andrew (Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner). An uneasy alliance is formed and Will and his family move in, bringing much needed food with them, but perhaps danger as well.
The title It Comes At Night suggests a different film than the one writer/director Trey Edward Shults is working to deliver here. It’s a title, to me, full of evocative images of monsters coming for this family that are holed up in the middle of nowhere trying to survive. Instead what Shults is going for here is a film that internalises its monsters, the unexplained disease is a threat, of course, but the film is much more interested in what facing a world suddenly shrunk to not much more than a square mile around your house does to the psyche when most other people are dead and you’re unsure if you can trust the people living in the next room. It’s a slow burning and tense piece of psychological horror, long on creeping fear borne out by unsaid things, looks and space.
Shults’ visuals work to increase the atmosphere of paranoia as the film goes on. At key moments, and increasingly towards the end of the film, he narrows the aspect ratio, giving a sense of the film itself pressing in and trapping the characters. As the intensity ramps up it is mirrored by the increased claustrophobia of the visuals, even in exterior scenes. It’s subtle enough as an effect to worm its way into your head while leaving you wondering if the film is actually doing what you think, or if it’s just got under your skin. Throughout the film the visuals impress. There are a few short sharp shocks in Travis’ hallucinations of his dead grandfather (David Pendleton) and of Kim, as a fantasy figure who quickly turns threatening, but Shults also gets a lot of mileage from stillness – look at the way Kim is sitting, her back to the camera, when Travis walks in to find her in the kitchen in the middle of the night. The use of darkness is particularly striking, with night time scenes shot with only the lights the characters have with them, Shults and DP Drew Daniels use the contrast of inky blacks and stark torch light especially well when Will first breaks in.
As much as the visuals, the well structured screenplay and the excellent performances drive the film. The opening scene was apparently written in the aftermath of the death of Shults’ father, and the emotion in it and throughout the screenplay is intense. The bleakness of the opening, with Sarah reassuring her dying father (in words Shults said to his own Dad) before Paul is forced to shoot him and have Travis help with the burial, sets the tone, but it’s the dinner table scene immediately afterwards, with Carmen Ejogo giving an incredible performance as Sarah silently fails to hold back all her tears, that feels more like the film in miniature to me. Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott both give effective performances as men at the end of their ropes, trying to find a way to survive while providing role models for their sons. Travis may be the film’s most complex character. One of his father figures dies in the first scene, something he never truly forgives Paul (who is likely his stepfather) for while another potential father figure, Will, brings an Oedipal element into the film as while Travis clearly looks up to Will his gaze is often turned to Kim. Kelvin Harrison Jr delivers a subtle yet detailed performance that suggests he’s someone to keep an eye on. Riley Keough builds on a series of fine performances here, she’s got the least showy role but, in the film’s climactic scene, delivers its most heart-rending and resonant moment.
It Comes At Night is not horror for the gorehounds, it’s a patient and creeping film that generates its horror from the slow shifting of dynamics and a nightmarish but credible situation. It’s a marked departure from Trey Edward Shults’ first film, but he’s clearly got a feel for the genre and I hope he works more in horror.
Universal’s Blu Ray release boats an impressive picture, with solid blacks and sharp detail and an atmospheric soundtrack. Extras are minimal, but the commentary with Shults and Kelvin Harrison Jr is engaging and very informative. There’s also a half hour making of feature, which digs a little deeper than your typical EPK package. A small but worthwhile selection.
It Comes At Night is released on digital download, Blu-ray and DVD on 30th October