Leading with a cold open of patricide, followed by a suffocating bleakness that never relents, It Comes at Night doesn’t suffer from a lack of atmosphere. The latest thriller/horror picture distributed by A24 is a grim fairy tale set in a black forest, a milieu that drives the narrative more than plot or dialogue. It feels as if writer-director Trey Edward Shults (the critically acclaimed Krisha) has a high concept in his head that never fully makes it onto the screen. It’s a psychological parable that’s minimalist to the point of inertia.
The harrowing opening revolves around a mercy killing, as Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their only son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), say goodbye to Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton). Bud is covered in buboes, infected with a highly contagious plague that’s apparently ravaged the rest of the world.
The members of his family have taken refuge in their spacious, isolated forest home, secured by deadbolts and extreme, yet necessary, paranoia. They “enjoy” an irregular food supply, reclaimed water, solar-powered batteries, and the safety of isolation. Paul is protective bordering on iron-willed, while Travis, a curious, hormonal teenager, struggles to adapt to his new abnormal.
Their security is interrupted when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the contagion-free fortress. Will says he’s just looking for fresh water and shelter for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their moppet. Will’s pen of goats and chickens gives him valuable barter, so Paul and Sarah agree to take in the visitors. But tensions gradually rise once the families are under one roof.
Shults teases seemingly valuable plot points along the way: Will’s inconsistent story about having a brother who died, Travis’s innocent attraction to the comely Kim, the motives of two woodsmen who ambush Paul and Travis. But these small curiosities never translate into big worries. The setting always circles back, whether the omnipresent dread is a product of cabin fever, elemental danger, or something else.
It Comes at Night shares many stylistic qualities with A24’s similarly dank and claustrophobic chamber play The Witch, but at least that film had a payoff. As far as family apocalypse survival sagas go, The Road was better and more affecting. The titular pronoun in the horror film It Follows was a metaphor for post-9/11 paranoia. But the “it” that comes at night is … disease? Demons? Death? A dog that goes bump in the night? We never know, mostly because our interactions with any existential threats are confined to the recesses of Travis’s nightmares.
Still, the film’s lessons are both profound and patent. For all our shared fear of the unknown, we are ultimately our own worst enemy. Faced with extreme adversity, humans might manage to survive, but at the expense of humanity. While Shults’s execution is precise and admirably gimmick-free, It Comes at Night could use a dash of M. Night.