A post-apocalyptic slow burn in which nightmare and reality collide, It Comes At Night follows a survivalist family of three as they attempt to isolate themselves and outlast a catastrophic plague that has seemingly taken millions of lives in the big cities, and then are joined (under interesting circumstances) by a second family of three. However, writer/director Trey Edward Shults is clearly not concerned with maximalist horror. The film is an intimate nightmare of paranoia and of humanity and of humanity’s greatest fear: the unknown.
Like 2016’s The Witch, a film I admired more than I really went for, It Comes At Night is an actor’s showcase of minimalist, high-minded horror. This may upset those looking for a more visceral experience, and the film’s marketing certainly isn’t going to help its reputation, but the picture succeeds not in spite of its intimacy and sparse use of traditional horror moments, but because of it. Shults gets the procedural bits right, and wrings enough tension and suspense simply from the premise. The family’s cabin, while fortified, is alone in the woods for miles, the threat of sickness always threatening.
The son, Travis, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., has nightmares. These nightmares are slightly skewed to the reality we are presented, both in their content and cinematic grammar and form, and fall in line nearest traditional horror elements. Thrown into the paranoia-rife situation in which the two families are in, always fearful of outbreak, Travis’ nightmares add another layer, slowly, to the nightmare. It Comes At Night is a horror movie you begin to feel in your gut, slowly, throughout as it takes shape and reshapes and slowly ramps up the dread and is far less punctuated with bursts of cathartic jump-scares.
The film has a thesis. Throughout it plays on the notion of the unknown. The apocalyptic plague functions well at this, because after all the Great Unknown will always be Death. Travis’ dreams often take on a supernatural tilt, but everyone in them seems to be ill from the plague as well. They’re grounded in reality, and yet inexplicable, unknowable. The plague has rendered all of the characters desperate. Brutally desperate. Constant terror and paranoia fills every scene. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) will go to any lengths to protect their son and to protect themselves. As it ends, the film asks us, “at what point does desperate survival become meaningless? At what point do we lose our humanity entirely in our efforts to save it?”