When Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night came out in 2017, it split audiences and critics completely. While critics were very enthusiastic about the film, praising its atmosphere and ability to both build and maintain tension and a sense of paranoia over the course of its taut running time of 91 minutes, the audience reaction was far more divided, even negative. It would be easy (and somewhat supercilious) to blame this on the average moviegoer failing to comprehend and appreciate its countless qualities, but there is definitely more going on here than that.
One of the main issues to contend with is the film’s marketing. The trailers for it are geared to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and thus make it appear as something it is not: a fast-paced, jump-scare ridden rollercoaster ride of a horror film that will provide all the fright and thrills that one of that ilk might, but this is not that film, and that marketing miscalculation had pretty dire consequences. Where the audience wanted literalism (surely something must come at night after all), monsters, and a plethora of other things that were implied, the film is keen to tell a different story.
After a virulent and devastating disease consumes the world, Paul (Joel Edgerton) lives with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in a house seemingly far from any remnants of civilisation, deep in the woods. The family is extremely careful when it comes to ensuring that they prevent contraction of the disease, and have a very regimented system that is disrupted with the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). After agreeing to an arrangement where both families live in the house, they must contend with living and getting along with other people, as well as continuing in their attempts to prevent the disease from infecting any of the house’s inhabitants.
This is a story about humanity, what it means to love and to lose, and how those concepts can play with the mind in unsettling and damaging ways. The paranoia that permeates the film is writer-director Shults’ greatest achievement, exacerbating the tension consistently throughout and making the film feel as claustrophobic as the walls of the house look. It evokes The Last of Us much more than something like Paranormal Activity in that the true horror comes not from an external force or being, but from the slow-burning tension of watching people fall apart as uncertainty, denial and fear consume them, as camaraderie and togetherness give way to conflict and disaster. Unlike even The Last of Us, Shults does not foreground the disease, instead, it lingers and permeates every frame like something in the periphery, something that will always be waiting.
Another aspect that lost some members of the audience is the film’s unrepentant embracing of ambiguity and bleakness. At the time of its release, there were articles that lamented the lack of catharsis and attributed some of the disillusionment with the film to the ending’s sheer refusal to tie the film up in a nice knot and round off all of its plot threads in a more satisfying manner, which in turn would have provided a release of all the pent-up tension the movie had spent its time so intricately gathering.
While this could certainly have played a role in only worsening the sense of frustration some may have found in the film, it is actually another of its strengths. This story is fundamentally not about those conclusions, it’s about the characters and their relationships, and how events and uncertainties can totally shift reality for a group that had, at least initially, formed a relationship that seemingly worked.
This can of course be done in different ways, and something like John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place perhaps offers a different side of the same coin, but what It Comes at Night manages to do should not be underestimated. This is a film that is unafraid to show that sometimes people simply cannot find all the answers and that when paranoia and tension reach breaking point the consequences are, more often than not, devastating for everyone involved. A word or two should be given to the performers, without whom such a relentless and emotionally exhausting experience wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective, but Shults gets to the heart of what really drives psychological horror and accesses the psyche of his characters in a way that brings to bear questions about just how much a person can cope with before reaching the end of their tether, and how far people’s relationships can be pushed before there are only horrific consequences.
Dir: Trey Edward Shults
Scr: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Griffin Robert Faulkner
Prd: David Kaplan, Andrea Roa
DOP: Drew Daniels
Run time: 91 minutes