A film review by Craig J. Koban June 27, 2017

IT COMES AT NIGHT jjjj

2017, R, 97 mins.

 

Joel Edgerton as Paul  /  Riley Keough as Kim  /  Christopher Abbott as Will  /  Carmen Ejogo as Sarah  /  Kelvin Harrison as Travis  /  Griffin Robert Faulkner as Andrew

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults

Just before I screened IT COMES AT NIGHT I watched three trailers for upcoming horror thrillers.  All of them were edited in exactly the same way.  All of them had the exact same jump scare music cues.  And all of them suffered from repetitive sameness and felt wholly and disposable interchangeable.  None of them made me enthusiastic about this well worn genre; there wasn't an iota of creativity present within them. 

This makes it all the more relieving - and more than a bit surprising - when a small little horror-survivor thriller like IT COMES AT NIGHT comes along to wake us all up out of genre fatigue and apathy.  The sophomore directorial effort of Houston-born Trey Edward Shults, this modest low budget film isn't replete with numbing and sadistic violence, but instead is much more refreshingly a masterful exercise in eerie-beyond-belief atmosphere that suffocates both its characters and viewers.  IT COMES AT NIGHT is steeped in paranoia, dread, and the haunting suspicion of that we are unfamiliar with.  Made with a bare bones premise, a consummate proficiency, and a bravura sense of shocking ambiguity, Shults' film emerges as one of the most hypnotically watchable of 2017...that is unless you're so unnerved by it all that you find yourself looking away from the screen throughout its chillingly taunt 97 minutes. 

 

 

Too many films - regardless of genre - waste an inordinate amount of time on expositional particulars to the point of inspiring watch checking boredom.  IT COMES AT NIGHT respects viewers more by simply thrusting viewers right smack dab in the middle of its nightmarish narrative without ever dwelling on specifics.  The remarkably effective opening scene sets up the entire film perfectly, during which time we see a hellishly sick middle aged man that looks just a few symptoms away from being an unthinking zombie.  The virus riddled man is packed into a wheel barrel, taking outside, thrown into a shallow grave, shot dead, covered in gasoline, and then set on fire.  The sequence ostensibly shows us everything we need to know about this apocalyptic world without telling us how society devolved in such a way.  It's as disturbing of an introduction to a film as you're likely to see. 

We learn that the burned man is actually the father-in-law of the man who just killed him, Paul (a commandingly powerful Joel Edgerton), whose wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have secluded themselves deep in the woods and well away from a society that has apparently been ravaged by a flesh eating virus that's horrendously contagious and slowly kills a person from the inside out.  They live by a single drive to stay alive and keep out anyone or anything that that could contaminate their forest home and serve as a death sentence for them all.  They have everything they essentially need to live, but are growing scarce on food.  One fateful evening Paul catches an intruder trying to break into their home, after which time he binds and gags the man and keeps him well away from his home and family in fear of him being diseased.  Paul soon realizes that the man, Will (Christopher Abbot), seems healthy, but is incredibly desperate for water, which is what motivated him to break into what he assumed was a secluded home to look for much needed supplies. 

Paul still has his doubts, which leads to Will convincing him to escort him back to his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son in exchange for food, which he claims they do have in abundance.  It appears that Will's story is true, so Paul decides that the best course of action is to allow this small family to return home with him and give them a place to stay in exchange for rations.  Slowly, but surely, both families learn to co-exist in relative peace and harmony, but when clues begin to rear up that one member of Will's family is potentially contaminated it consumes Paul with mistrust and fear, re-sparking his deep seeded worries that Will was not straight with him from the very beginning. 

Discussing the plot further would be akin to a spoiler rant, but what I can say about IT COMES AT NIGHT is that it's one of the decidedly rare breeds of modern horror thrillers - like IT FOLLOWS and THE WITCH - that places infinitely more stock in unsettling audiences than it does in nauseating them with shock and awe gore and cheaply engineered mayhem.  Those looking for a dime-a-dozen slasher film in IT COMES AT NIGHT (which its head scratchingly false advertising campaign wrongfully preached it was) will be setting themselves up for massive disappointment.  The methodical slow-burn approach here by Shults is precisely what makes his film such an atypically frightening piece of macabre horror fiction.  Too many horror films these days scare us with mechanically orchestrated "boo!" moments, whereas IT COMES AT NIGHT becomes more unrelentingly creepy and hard to watch out of fear of what's lurking in the shadows of the candle lit home...or outside in the surrounding forest. 

The house itself becomes a tertiary character throughout the film, not to mention a claustrophobic entity that begins to clamp down on both families, systematically increasing distrust in one another.   Shults manages to create nail biting tension out of nothingness, letting painstakingly orchestrated camera pans, ominous lighting schemes, and some nifty usage of multiple screen aspects ratios to sell the film's dread filled mood.  In many respects, IT COMES AT NIGHT is really an anti-horror film in the sense that it's more calculatingly insular in overall approach.  Zombie pandemic films, for example, explore the larger world of the outbreak and the hows and whys of its origins; IT COMES AT NIGHT is the exact opposite - it's about a very small group of people caught within a larger humanity threatening crisis doing what they can to stay alive at all costs away from it. 

Ultimately, IT COMES AT NIGHT is really a zombie movie minus zombies that uses its slickly spare and economical premise to examine the disintegration of its character's mental states when under punishing duress.  Shults dabbles with some evocatively ambiguous supernatural occurrences in the film (which could be part of one character's dream...or they could be actually happening...or a sinister combination of both), but he never dwells on them.  He's more intrigued with showing characters driven to paralyzing trepidation and how the daily challenges of basic survival and staving off infection act as a catalyst for people making ill informed snap judgments.  The thankless performances are crucial here, seeing as all the actors present are all neither playing squeaky clean and noble personas, nor are they embodying figures of pure evil.   There's no real tangible or obligatory axe wielding villain in IT COMES AT NIGHT; the film is about good people driven to maddening uneasiness and extremes while populating a world gone mad.  That's what makes it truly scary. 

IT COMES AT NIGHT reaches a boiling point during its fever pitched climax that I frankly found unreservedly traumatic to endure, which I think is the exact point; it finishes on a final shot that's both pathetically sad and brutally powerful.  The film concludes without laying all of its narrative cards on the table for easy audience dissection and interpretation.   I'm hard pressed to find any other recent horror thriller - outside of a few aforementioned ones - that terrified me as much as this one did without resorting to cheap genre pallor tricks and overused troupes.  IT COMES AT NIGHT is a doomsday survival film as audaciously original and brutally efficient as them come, and it left me feeling mentally worn and shaken as I exited the cinema.  You'll watch most of it through your fingers...as I most certainly did.   

 

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