“Hell is other people,” Jean-Paul Sartre once said. Little did he know, but Sartre’s phrase applies to the horror genre too. In horror, the monsters are often supernatural or otherworldly, but the real monsters don’t wear hockey masks or carry machetes, they look like us, sound like us, and often feel like us, except they’re willing to take a life, out of amusement, derangement, or in the case of Trey Edwards Shults (Krisha) bleak, brutal, brilliant art-horror film, It Comes at Night, out of instinct and self-preservation. When we meet the characters at the center of It Comes at Night, Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), they’ve seemingly survived the worst: The apocalypse has come and gone, the result of a deadly blood- and air-borne virus has all but ended the world as they knew it, leaving them alone in a boarded up house in the proverbial woods (it’s both shelter and prison), eating rationed meals together, and above all, never leaving their home at night except in an emergency.
. . . the real monsters don’t wear hockey masks or carry machetes, they look like us, sound like us, and often feel like us . . .
Whether there’s something monstrous lurking in the surrounding woods remains a question Shults never answers, but the appearance of a scavenger, Will (Christopher Abbott), one night suggests they’re not alone. Always leading the way, Paul takes a hardline with Will, first tying him to a tree to make sure he’s not infected, then interrogating him mercilessly about where he came from (50 miles away), who he’s with (his wife, Kim [Riley Keough] and son, Andrew [Griffin Robert Faulkner]), and his motives (water). Sarah’s maternal instincts hide a ruthless calculator: They can’t let Will go since he knows their location, so instead they invite him and his family to stay with them, sharing chores and providing each other with company. Trust, however, eventually gives way to paranoia, eventually damaging a frail truce or armistice between the two families. Paul and Sarah’s survival-first, compassion-second – a ruthlessness borne out in It Comes At Night’s opening minutes as they dispatch Sarah’s infected father – contrasts sharply with Travis’ attitude toward the newcomers. He welcomes them, especially Kim, an attractive woman close in age.
Shults command of mood, atmosphere, and tone also extends to a narrative that embraces ambiguity both about events in the outside world and the characters conflicting, contradictory motives, motives they hide not from each other, but as a function of cognitive dissonance . . .
Shults takes a deep dive into Travis’ headspace, weaving waking dreams and nightmares into a stifling, frustrating daily routine bookended by trauma (losing everyone and everything he’s ever known or loved outside his parents). Shults transitions between Travis’ vivid, lucid dreams, dreams often reflecting his fears and anxieties, not to mention the hormonally driven desires typical of someone his age, and his more quotidian reality, often without the usual visual or narrative clues, a strategy that successfully replicates Travis’ increasingly disturbed mental and emotional state. His parents are less concerned about his state of mind than the state of his body (i.e., keeping him alive). While day-to-day survival gives shape and purpose to Travis’ parents, it doesn’t for him. Shults frequently follows Travis as he traverses the seemingly labyrinthine confines of the boarded-up, perpetually semi-dark home. The weak light of their lanterns and flashlights does little to keep the shadows – and everything the shadows represent, including death – at bay.
Along with his cinematographer, Drew Daniels, Shults constantly pushes the images toward chiaroscuro abstraction, using dissolves and long tracking shots (a red door plays a prominent visual role) to create a sense of existential dread and impending doom for the characters at the center of It Comes at Night. Shults command of mood, atmosphere, and tone also extends to a narrative that embraces ambiguity both about events in the outside world and the characters conflicting, contradictory motives, motives they hide not from each other, but as a function of cognitive dissonance: They might do monstrous things, but they’re not monsters (or least that’s what they tell themselves) with Travis, a young man with a traumatic past behind him and a blighted future ahead, caught in the middle.
With his previous film (his first), Krisha, Shults proved himself highly capable director of his cast, eliciting raw, authentic, grounded performances. He has a higher budget and an experienced cast, but it’s Harrison Jr., a relative unknown, who gives a devastatingly powerful performance. In a bigger film with a bigger marketing budget, Harrison Jr. would get magazine profiles, late-night TV appearances and a few phone calls from casting agents eager to work with him. That might still happen for him, if not on this film, then his next one. Whether it does or not, however, his performance in It Comes at Night is nothing short of revelatory. It also suggests that Shults is the real deal as a filmmaker, deep knowledge of filmmaking as craft and an art.
It Comes at Night is nothing short of revelatory. It also suggests that Shults is the real deal as a filmmaker, deep knowledge of filmmaking as craft and an art.