The 2010s, if nothing else, blessed us with a shot in the horror genre’s arm, re-calibrating it from the torture porn and remakes of the 2000s to more esoteric, unsettling fare like The Babadook and It Follows. And for all intents and purposes, It Comes at Night looked like a fine addition to this roster, mostly thanks to the poster above, perhaps the most effective I’ve seen in a long time.
As you probably know by now, It Comes at Night is not that movie. But, like, it kind of is. Therein lies the problem.
Before we delve too deep into things, the basics: Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are isolated in the woods from a lethal plague-like contagion that, presumably, has ravaged society around them. And even then, their isolation isn’t enough – we meet Sarah’s father amid his sickness, his body burned before the disease progresses. That evening, a stranger named Will (Christopher Abott) tries to break in, later convincing Paul that he’s only looking for resources to support his own family, located in an abandoned house some miles away. The two patriarchs agree to a trade – Will’s family brings food, Paul offers them accommodations in their home. Of course, the presence of a new family in the face of an invisible threat brings about tension from both parties.
The formula of strangers stuck in a house amidst an external enemy is nothing new, but when done right it’s delicious. The issue that I imagine many ran into is that the “it” of the title is… the disease? Paranoia? Some guy jacking off in the middle of the woods? It’s not entirely clear, and It Comes at Night is content to leave you at that. This is a smug movie, one of those arthouse movies with an inflated sense of importance that sneer at those seeking answers, even though the simple elegance of the “uneasy strangers” dynamic clues us immediately where the movie’s going. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that hormonal, nobody-gets-me teenager who lashes out because they think their edge makes them cryptic and unique, while everyone’s just kind of perplexed, like, “Ron, you live in a nice cul-de-sac and have literally no problems. What is your damage?” This is doubly grating when the movie dangles threads like Travis’ recurrent nightmares and the trusty family dog barking at something unknown in the woods, hinting at something more significant in the fold that never pans out. It’s triply grating when those threads are terrific and do nothing else but remind you how excellent It Comes at Night would be if it went full-tilt horror.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults has gone on record saying he paid no mind to the “logic” regarding the mysterious virus, aka the driving force behind the entire movie, and that should tell you everything you need to know going in. This wouldn’t be as glaring an issue if the characters were worth your time, but, listen, I’ve dissed Contagion for being too focused on its virus over its characters, and upon watching It Comes at Night I’d like to apologize, for that is the correct choice. The acting in It Comes at Night is pitch-perfect, but fuck me these characters are not pleasant people to watch for an hour and a half, each speaking in similar ways, each static. You could argue that Travis and Paul succumb to paranoia as the movie progresses, but it’s not like the needle’s being pushed to a new extreme when they’ve been palpably on edge from the word go. And when the two families do start butting heads, the movie finally gets interesting (the first 10 minutes are tremendously good and the rest is just kind of there, aside from select moments), the characters settle into their archetypes a bit better, the intensity ratchets up, and then the movie ends about 15 minutes later. So, you know, that’s something.
The saving grace of It Comes at Night is easily the cinematography, where DP Drew Daniels and Shults use the inherent uncertainty of night to lovely effect, pushing suffocating pitch-blackness into negative space. This is especially effective in Travis’ nightmares, where it’s like his sole sanctuary, his home – in itself a nice piece of production design, an ambiguously laid-out block of black amidst the greenery of the woods, looking like a sort of cesspool for the paranoia that night entails – is being actively crushed by the dark, inching ever closer. It’s terrific visual storytelling and picks up the slack where the writing fails. Above all else, it’s one of the few things that are certain in the movie, along with the sound design, which coalesces with the visuals to craft some legitimately unsettling and startling sequences. That aside, It Comes at Night wants to have it all in the art-horror world: it wants to dip its toes in bump-in-the-night scares, it wants to offer a study on how the creeping pursuit of death twists the soul, it wants to give us characters that act as lenses into the end of the world, but it never follows any of that through in a way that’s striking, or satisfying, or even particularly thoughtful.
I get the point of It Comes at Night is to emphasize how paranoia leads to the triumph of death, and perhaps more so that death is simply an inevitability and oftentimes we never understand why, but it’s a real shame to present us with nihilism and nothing to ground it, nothing to contrast or even compound it, whether it be engaging people or an engaging adversary. When your movie amounts to little else than life sucks then sure, there’s something to be said for that, but It Comes at Night is more than happy to take credit for bringing the conclusions of those discussions to fruition when in actuality it’s not doing much at all.