At first blush, this fairly modest horror movie by upstart Trey Edward Shults feels like a pale reflection of A Quiet Place, which is probably this year’s most successful horror movie. Both films are about families hiding out in the woods from unseen menaces. In the case of It Comes at Night, it’s a kind of plague, while in A Quiet Place it’s some sort of invading species of predator, but the main theme is survival against very bad odds. What eventually gives Shults’ film the edge in this regard is that the central family—Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—can’t see the menace clearly, since it can only be transferred via another living being. Their paranoia is practical but not empirically based. In the haunting opening scene, they literally cart Sarah’s father (David Pendleton), covered in lesions and mumbling incoherently, to a ditch where they shoot him and set his body on fire.
The father, somewhat cruelly named Bud, is an obvious threat. But when a straggler tries to break into their remote house, thinking that it’s abandoned, the family has no choice but to handle him roughly and tie him to a tree overnight. Paul, a preternaturally nervous but stoical head of household, has to make sure this younger man, named Will (Christopher Abbott), is not carrying the disease, and it takes a lot of convincing. Once it’s established he’s not infected, he pleads with Paul to help him, since he has a wife and son at an abandoned house some miles away. They have food, but almost no drinking water. Eventually, a deal is made, and Will and his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), move into Paul’s spacious but decidedly creepy house.
Conventional horror films tend to trade in concrete terrors, but despite the pronoun in the title, It Comes at Night rarely delivers a material threat. The few times that something rudely intrudes on the space so covetously protected by the protagonists, the danger is never confirmed. While driving through the woods, Paul’s truck is shot at and he responds by savagely killing the shooter and the shooter’s companion without bothering to find out why they shot at him and if they’re infected. The movie’s title mainly describes Travis’s awful dreams. Constitutionally an insomniac, Travis has terrible visions when he does manage some shut-eye and Shults cleverly alternates these nightmares with the boy’s midnight ramblings through the hallways with only an oil lamp to guide his way. By refusing to name or even show the menace all around the house, Shults makes terror more realistic and thus more unsettling.
The movie’s structure is clearly bifurcated between setup and delivery, and though these purposes are brilliantly carried out, they may feel a little too on-the-nose given how much Shults thinks he has to withhold. In the end, the movie’s horror component is invested in the characters’ capacity for mistrust and how that mistrust can blossom into deadly intent, especially where there’s lots of guns on hand. But horror movies in particular require some sort of resolution to make their point, and It Comes at Night doesn’t really have any. It’s bleakness is almost immoral.
Opens Nov. 23 in Tokyo at Cinema Qualite Shinjuku (03-3352-5645).
It Comes at Night home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 A24 Distribution, LLC