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'It Comes at Night' is a cerebral, scary end-of-world drama

“It Comes at Night” looks, sounds, feels and is titled like a horror movie. But it’s not "horror," exactly. It’s something more disturbing — a harsh, somber story that takes horror trademarks (survival, desperation, paranoia) to a setting  rooted in brutal realism.

And yes, it is scary. These scares, however, comes from what’s hidden. By focusing almost entirely on the unseen, “It Comes at Night” mesmerizes.

“Night” is the latest release from A24 — also known as The Coolest Distributor in the World. But like 2016’s “The Witch,” it may prove unsatisfying to horror junkies.

For “It Comes at Night” lacks that one transcendent scare, that defining moment that makes an audience shriek as one. Director Trey Edward Shults is simply not interested in that response, and while this is commendable, it also means the film lacks the catharsis that comes from such a scene. Prepare, then, for sadness, not fright.

The tone is set from scene one. As this cerebral take on end-of-the-world drama begins, a family prepares to say goodbye to a horrifically sick grandpa. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) are clearly dreading what the situation requires.

They are alone (with their dog), deep in the woods, seemingly safe in a boarded-up house. We start to infer what’s happening in the world-at-large: the illness that gripped Sarah’s father has decimated mankind. Electricity is gone, and so, too, is any connection to the outside world.

Paul’s method for dispensing with his father-in-law involves a wheelbarrow, a gun, gasoline and a match, and it has led to a predictably tense situation. The hardest hit is Travis, a good-natured, somewhat innocent 17-year-old attempting to mature while under harrowing circumstances. (Harrison steals the movie with a tender, introspective performance.)

And who wouldn’t feel a bit tense when told about the red door that must, must stay locked at night? That door finally bursts open when a stranger appears. This is Will (Christopher Abbott, the star of 2016’s brilliant indie “James White”). He speaks of a starving wife and child in need of shelter, and a surprising amount of food ready for trading.

Paul and Will negotiate, come to an agreement, and leave. They return a few days later with Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and the couple’s young son, and this influx of new bodies has a positive effect on Paul, Sarah and Travis. For a bit.

Soon comes some sexual tension, a disappearing dog, the unexplained nighttime opening of the red door, a sense of being watched, and, for Travis, continual nightmares. The film culminates in a final stretch that is riveting, profound, and almost unbearably intense.

The strained family dynamic is important, just as it was in Shults’s feature debut, the stunning “Krisha.” His first two films are psychologically piercing and visually striking, catapulting the director to the ranks of America’s most exciting young filmmakers.

“It Comes at Night” is very close to a masterpiece. Enveloped in dread and oozing with tension, it’s one of the great recent studies of the fear that comes from a desire for survival. In this film, fear and paranoia is what comes at night, and these are far scarier than any physical being.

MOVIE REVIEW

“It Comes at Night”

★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4)

Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. star in drama about a family tested during an unnatural threat that terrorizes the world. Rated R for violence, disturbing images and languages. 97 minutes.

 

 

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