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Movie Review: It Comes at Night

It Comes at Night is mostly well-done. Mostly.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

***This review contains some spoilers***

It Comes at Night, the much-buzzed-about new horror film, centers around a group of people struggling to stay alive inside a cabin in the woods, but don’t get the wrong idea. Evil Dead, this ain’t. In fact, it’s more a thriller than the pure-horror experience its trailers are selling you. The film is pulling something of a bait-and-switch that I don’t expect will go over well with audiences once the lights come back up. People don’t like getting something other than what they expressly believed they were signing up for. It Comes at Night isn’t selling you a bill of goods, exactly, but neither is it being entirely straightforward about what it really is.

A family is living in a reinforced home deep in the woods, donning gas masks when venturing outside. We soon learn that the world has been ravaged by some sort of mysterious and deadly virus. How the virus is transmitted is never made entirely clear—and might not even be clear to the survivors themselves—but the film opens with the family having to execute and incinerate their afflicted grandfather. Patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton) runs a fairly tight ship, proving averse to taking any sorts of unnecessary risks that might jeopardize his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Paul isn’t the survivalist nutjob we often see in movies like this. He’s stern and authoritative, but not completely bereft of compassion. He’ll snap at Travis for making a crucial error, but will then immediately apologize for the outburst. He’s simply on the stronger side of cautious.

The rigidity of Paul’s vigilance is tested when an interloper named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break into the family’s home one night. Will is armed, but finds himself quickly subdued by Paul and subsequently gagged and bound to a tree while Paul figures out what to do with him. Will claims that he, too, is a desperate family man trying to keep his own brood safe, and that he was searching for supplies, thinking the house was abandoned. Will says that his own wife and child are in another cabin not far away. Paul is hesitant to trust Will, but the promise of additional food supplies (including live animals) plus some extra sets of hands around the house forces him out of his comfort zone. He agrees to take Will to get his family and bring them to live with his own.

The trustworthiness of Will is constantly in question, and it gives them film an engine of tension that never stops humming along. Not ten minutes into their drive, Paul’s truck is ambushed by a pair of gun-wielding mercenaries, and though Paul bests them with his rifle, Will’s reaction to the situation is maddeningly difficult to parse out. When it turns out that Will’s story was on the level, and that his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and young son do exist, it’s a relief, but there still remains an uncertainty about these newcomers, in the sense that any person with whom you don’t share a history is to some degree unknowable. This is true enough in regular life, but in a post-apocalyptic world, it’s the difference between life and death.

It Comes at Night is a masterclass of sustained anxiety. The film keeps things taut all throughout. Even when the two families seem to be blending magnificently, you never shake the feeling that something awful is always mere moments away from transpiring, even if you’re not sure in which direction you need to be looking for it. Apart from the constant threat of the virus, there’s Paul’s tightly-wound watchfulness, Will’s enigmatic backstory and Travis’ vivid nightmares and adolescent attraction to Kim. And after the family dog takes off into the woods and comes back one night bloody and sick, through the front door that has mysteriously managed to find itself unlocked, the paranoia that brims between the characters threatens to erupt.

When things do go sideways near the end of It Comes at Night, as they inevitably must, the film does a fine job of turning the screws, aided by the minimalist score. As an exercise in armrest-clutching dread, the film works undeniably well. Would that that were enough. The film might know how to craft tension expertly, but it feels only partially constructed in other respects. It keeps teasing out the potentiality of external threats to no end (I’ll give it to you straight: nothing comes at night), and once the film reaches its bloody climax, it feels very rushed, and then it proceeds to fast-forward through an additional tragedy before the abruptly credits roll. Many in the theater were left baffled by their expectations for a zombie/monster/ghost story being dashed in favor of a viral-survival thriller, but I myself was left wondering why the film was missing a third act.

It Comes at Night stands as a hell of a calling card for writer/director Trey Edward Shults. He is clearly an adept purveyor of dread and a person of interest for the horror genre in the coming years. But he hasn’t made a film that feels complete as a well-rounded piece of work. Maybe a more fully-fleshed-out story will come to him one night.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


Alien Ink said…
Fear comes at night.

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