This year, A24 returns to the genre with It Comes at Night, a film that star Joel Edgerton considers to be in the same class as those other recent "intelligent" horror classics. It's the second film from Trey Edward Shults, who broke out on the festival circuit with Krisha, a family drama with some seriously dark subject matter (still haven't seen it, but probably should). And while It Comes at Night will be receiving a wide release from A24, it's far from a crowd-pleaser. This is a dark, relentlessly frightening film, one where answers are less important than a pervasive atmosphere of dread. It's a slow burn that simmers until it explodes, leaving the audience to watch in horror as they try to piece together exactly what the hell just happened. It's a technically impressive piece of work with a tremendous ensemble cast, and it has some sequences that will shred your nerves. It's the kind of chiller that leaves you with a ton of questions and a feeling that you just can't shake- if you prefer your horror with a healthy dose of ambiguity, this is the movie for you. It Comes at Night has some flaws that keep it from masterpiece status, but it's unquestionably a stunning, brutally engrossing experience.
It Comes at Night opens on a disturbing image of a sick, dying old man. His name is Bud (David Pendelton), and he's the father of Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and the grandfather of Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah's husband and the patriarch of their secluded family, has to make a terrible decision to protect their family- he has to kill Bud. Clad in a gas mask and black rubber gloves, he drags his nearly lifeless body out to the woods, pushed a pillow onto his face, and puts a bullet in his head. Welcome to the world of It Comes at Night, where a sickness can erupt from nowhere and the most extreme precautions must be taken. Something has happened, and this relatively normal family has now holed themselves up in the woods to keep away from the plague that has enveloped the rest of the world.
Paul's house is a safe haven, and he runs a tight ship that keeps everyone in line. But everything will change with the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbott), who breaks into the house thinking that it's abandoned. Tied up to a tree by Paul, Will reveals that he has a wife (Riley Keough) and a son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) nearby who are in desperate need of supplies. Paul is reluctant to let anyone in his home, but his good nature kicks in and he allows Will to bring his family to his fortress. Things go great for a while, and the families find a sense of companionship in each other. But when mysterious things start happening in and around the house, the paranoia increases and the trust issues start to become more apparent. The result is nothing short of nightmarish, as the uneasy relationship turns violent and the dark forces begin to surround Paul's beacon of stability and order.
Let's start with this- I have no idea what happens in It Comes at Night, nor do I exactly have the desire to piece it all together. There's something distinctly menacing about the complete and total ambiguity utilized in this entire film, and while it takes a while to get to the big scares, the surrealism of the whole thing is terrifying. It Comes at Night plays out like a phantasmagoric nightmare, one that leaves you questioning what's real and what's not, chilling you with its atmosphere before delivering a brutally violent kick. It's a descent into madness that plunges you into nerve-shredding darkness, an experience that is as uncomfortable as it is compelling. There's no ending, no satisfying conclusion, and certainly no happiness to be found- it's like a bad dream brought to vivid life on the big screen, with all of the nightmarish imagery and bizarre vagueness that you would expect. If that's not for you, stay far, far away from this one. But if it is your kind of thing, you're in for a gripping ride.
Much of the strength of this film comes from the ensemble, which is as strong as any horror film in recent memory. Joel Edgerton, with his roles in films such as Loving, Midnight Special, and The Gift, has quickly turned into one of my favorite actors, and he's nothing short of tremendous here. Paul seems like a genuinely kind human being pushed to the edge by a horrible situation, and nobody is able to portray that cross between good and evil quite like Edgerton. He's genial but ruthless, smart and generous but cold as ice. He's matched by Christopher Abbott's Will, a pragmatic family man in search of a sense of safety for his wife and daughter. Abbott delivers a terrific performance in the film, blending desperation with determination to great effect. But the standout role comes from Kelvin Harrison Jr., a teenager completely out of his depth in this post-apocalyptic nightmare. Harrison is the emotional crux of the movie, and the sheer confusion and paranoia that his character creates is responsible for so much of the drama. If there's one criticism to be had for the cast, it's that there isn't enough for the women to do- as good as Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are, I feel like their talents could have been better utilized. But that's a minor quibble in what is otherwise a magnificent cast.
The other main strength of It Comes at Night lies in its writer and director- Trey Edward Shults. Pulling off a chamber piece drama like this isn't easy, and to make it this effortlessly frightening and engaging takes a good deal of talent. Shults is exceptionally good at generating both human drama and a complex feeling of dread, a combination that isn't easy to pull off. It Comes at Night initially pulls you in with its characters- it opens with a gut-wrenching moment that clearly has an incredible impact on the people at the center of the story. And from there, Shults allows you to get a feel for how these people think, how they've come to terms with this world, how they've adapted to the measures they have to take to survive. Shults creates an experience that is both psychological and visceral, dreamlike yet grounded in a harsh reality.
And visually, this thing is an absolute knockout. Shults is a meticulous filmmaker who deliberately tries to affect the audience in various ways, whether it's the shifting aspect ratio or the pervasive darkness that poses the threat of danger around every corner. Shults and his team are working in complete harmony- cinematographer Drew Daniels does some of the most beautiful horror work in recent memory, the score by Brian McOmber is properly unnerving, and the house is a masterpiece of production design by Karen Murphy. It Comes at Night is a gorgeously frightening film, and part of what sets it apart from its contemporaries is its commitment to technique and filmmaking bravado. Everything in this film comes together wonderfully, and Shults' vision is clear from the first shot to the haunting finale.
It Comes at Night will undoubtedly be a divisive film, and judging by the "D" Cinemascore, most audience members won't agree with my take on Shults' latest project. But if you're going in with an open mind and hoping to find something decidedly different from the rest of Hollywood's horror output, I think you'll find some very distinct pleasures with this film. It Comes at Night manages to succeed as a complete vision, while also feeling like a short film- and I mean that in a good way. It's a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic parable that builds slowly until it bursts into a feverish rage of violence. It's a chilling, unforgettable concoction, the kind of vividly memorable horror film that deserves recognition. It may take a while to get going, but once it does, It Comes at Night is a deliciously bizarre treat.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.3/10)
Source Quote: EW
Images courtesy of A24