Some movies don’t end when the credits roll. They don’t drift away as you shrug on your jacket and check your phone. They stay with you on the walk home. They’re still there when you turn off all the lights and crawl into bed, and they’re really on the forefront of your mind when you get up to double check the locks. They turn shadows into monsters. They hold you captive. It might only last for an hour or two, you might wake up fresh-faced and ready to conquer a normal day, but it’s scary. The idea that something can hijack your mind and change your perception, that the nightmare isn’t over when you leave the theater, is scarier than anything you can show on a screen.
Maybe you think that’s silly. Maybe you’re the kind of person who dabbles in French Extremism. You watch Irreversible or Martyrs without flinching. You’ve got an iron stomach and you laughed while watching High Tension. Or maybe you’re the opposite of that. Maybe you have no interest in the genre. You like thrillers, sure, but horror? A waste of your time. I say this because, like the quiet and immersive horror films that have come before this, a lot of people are not going to like It Comes At Night. For some it will be because the movie doesn’t go far enough, and for others it will be because it’s gone way too far. Like The Witch, It Follows, and so many others, it will be criticized for not being scary enough, for being more of an art project than a horror movie. Thankfully those people are wrong (they usually are).
Directed by Trey Edward Shults, the same man who brought us the fever dream of a family drama Krisha, It Comes At Night is similarly fever-dreamy. Sticking with Krisha’s strong family themes, Shults’ sophomore film follows a family fighting at the edge of the world. Something has happened. Some sort of catastrophe, whether manmade or natural, no one is sure. A small family comprised of Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his dog Stanley, are holed up in a barn in the middle of the woods. They leave the house only when necessary and are almost always equipped with gas masks. Most of their days are spent in a haze of making sure everything is in working order. That they have enough food and water to continue surviving. It works well, until it doesn’t. They find a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempting to break in one night. He claims that he thought the house was empty and that all he wants is enough food and water to bring to his wife and small child. After much deliberation, Paul and Sarah decide that’s it’s too risky for strangers to know about their stronghold, so they send Paul out to grab Will’s family and bring them back to the farm.
From the very beginning of It Comes At Night you’re infected with dread. That feeling never stops, but by the time Will’s family joins up with Paul, Travis and Sarah, it doubles down. There have been a rash of horror movies in the last few years that have boastfully thrown away some of the genre’s most used tools, like loud sweeping scores and jump scares. These movies instead go full throttle on the atmosphere. They don’t want to resort to cheap tricks, so they fill every frame with quiet horror. If you can’t have a spooky, CGI-ed to hell face pop up in a mirror to earn your scares, then you have to think outside of the box. It Comes At Night feels like the first movie to do this entirely successfully. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Witch and The Bababdook and Get Out. I love this new smarter horror genre that refuses to take the easy way out, but when you’re trying to consistently build dread without utilizing cheap scares, you lose a different kind of subtlety. You lose the ebb and flow of feeling safe and then having that safety taken away from you. Although It Comes At Night exists in a world where safety as we know it no longer exists, it nails that power exchange between the movie and the audience. It’s a gorgeously paced film that feels organic, like it popped out of Shults’ head fully formed and ready to take on the world.
It helps that It Comes At Night does a great job at keeping things relatively simple, while still maintaining a deep complexity for human emotion. You’re either in the house, with it’s boarded up windows and dark wood paneling, or you’re outside in the deceptively lush and lively woods, but the storyline has much more going on then that. There is the hardship of fighting against a world that is doing everything it can to kill you, there is the notion that the new people you have brought in are hiding a deadly secret and there is the feeling that one day you are going to mess up. You are going to forget to put on the oxygen mask. You are going to forget to lock the front door. You are going to be a human and you are going to put everyone’s lives at risk. At the same time, you are watching Travis, a teen boy who is coming of age in this post-apocalyptic world. He has no peers, he has no love interest. He has nothing but his parents, his dog and his drawings. When he interacts with Will’s young wife Kim (Riley Keough), you can feel the sexual tension ooze out of him and it’s a deeply sad moment. Travis will never be able to find the love Paula and Sarah have, or that Will and Kim have. Not in this world.
I could spend hundreds more words gushing to you about the editing, the acting, and how seamlessly Shults has been able to drift between genres and storylines just in this movie alone, but you have to see the movie. Love it or hate it, you can’t feel the scope of it until you’ve seen the credits roll. Good luck shaking it then. I certainly haven’t.