Something wickedly frustrating this way comes.
An elderly man, wheezing, covered in open sores with jet black eyes sits in a dusty, barren room surrounded by persons in gas masks. A woman cries. “I love you, dad,” she says in his final moments. This man is put in a wheel barrow, taken to a shallow grave, and is returned to the earth.
The opening moments of It Comes At Night sets a desolate tone that carries throughout the film’s brisk runtime and sets us up for a tale of desperation, the fragility of human nature, and what people will do to ensure the safety of the ones they love. What this film doesn’t set you up for is a frustrating amount of open ended questions, a lack of payoff, and pretentious editing to give the feel of something high art without any declaration to go with it.
The scenario is one we have seen before in the arthouse thriller genre: a small scale, claustrophobic character study focusing on the inner workings of a tight knit group which ultimately preys on their paranoia in the wake of their world turned topsy turvy. The patriarch in this case, devilishly personified by the always acute Joel Edgerton (The Gift, Black Mass), is a man whose system in place has largely kept his family intact after an unknown virus has relegated much of the world to disease and decay. Locked up in a home in the middle of a forested nowhere, another family man (Christopher Abbott, Girls) breaks in looking for supplies for his family. After some stern talking to, because clearly trust is a scarce resource in most dystopias, an agreement is made wherein the intruder may bring his family to live with them.
Then everything goes to hell – with interjections of nightmare fuel thanks to Edgerton’s son played by relative newcomer Kelvin Harrison, Jr.
Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore film does a fabulous job of nailing tone. It shows real horror prowess and an attention to eery suspense that’s almost Hitchcockian in its execution. The use of color and depth and grain give a very rich canvas for the film to live on which makes the world feel lived in and surreal. The majority of the tension comes from the use of dream sequences that zone in on the things we can’t see, but we know are there – often in the dark recesses of a shadowy room or just out of sight on the edge of a tree line. For every inch we’re given, however, we’re taken back a mile as the payoff never truly comes leaving viewers in a constant strain of dread with nothing to release it. And while some of the greatest thrillers ever made prey on this, Shults’ seems to forget that audiences have an exhaustion point with nightmarish scenarios – and that catharsis is a useful tool to keep the action going.
And that’s where It Comes At Night falls short. Shults clearly has a love for genre and has honed a visual style that’s a feast for the eyes, but the style comes without any real substance, narrative closure, or even a mission statement that says, “This is what I think of mankind.” The gusto becomes lost in some sick need to leave us just as confused and in the dark as the characters we are living with onscreen. It becomes a movie where we focus too much on trying to recount the things we thought we saw as panic and dread sets in as opposed to being in the moment as our characters live it. How was the door open? Am I suspicious of this guy we barely know? Does it even matter?
While It Comes At Night makes bold moves, Shults’ incessant and gratuitous use of narrative dead ends ultimately swallow the film whole leaving a movie that has flair, promise, tension, and brilliantly nuanced performances stumbling through the night searching for some kind of closure.
“It Comes At Night” is directed by Trey Edward Shults and stars Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. It is rated R for violence, disturbing images, and language.
Review by Zachary Eser