It Comes At Night is another impressive effort from Trey Edward Shults, in his sophomore effort, creating a tense drama set in the backwoods of a dystopian future.
People can get sick, and then they quickly die, that’s what we learn in the opening scene of It Comes At Night, as patriarch Paul has to put his father-in-law out his misery after only a couple of days of sickness. Paul’s wife, Sarah, and son, Travis, mourn over a silent dinner, head to bed, only to be awoken by an intruder into their boarded up house to keep anything on the outside where it is. After subduing the intruder, Will, he tells the story of a family he is trying to scavenge for and Paul and his family must decide whether to trust this stranger or leave them all to die.
That, right there, is the drama of It Comes At Night. What would you do for your family? Yes, there is a threat out there. Is it human? It most certainly can be. Is it disease? We’ve seen that it is. Is it something even more sinister? Shults isn’t interested in that. What Shults wants answers to is what everyday people will do in extraordinary circumstances. What extremes will a father go to protect his family? Can you trust someone who might be just as good as you perceive yourself? What runs through a boy’s brain when he wants to come of age and has no one to come of age with? How would you, an ordinary person, handle yourself if your back is being put up against the wall? These are just some of the thoughts that will cross your mind as you watch Paul and Will’s families come together and you probably won’t be able to settle up with the answers Shults delivers by the end.
Is Shults’ film an original thought experiment? No, there have been plenty of dystopian/apocalyptic films that focus on the human side of the drama rather than the cataclysmic world stage, but Shults’ execution is pretty much pitch perfect from start to finish. The tension in this film is unnerving, breathing on only a couple of occasions to let some positivity into the story, while Shults pulls us into something otherworldly and sinister every time Travis closes his eyes. This film isn’t for someone looking for a relaxing time at the theater. The imagery can be unsettling, the tension almost always slowly ratcheting, and the reality of it all is just devastating.
The small cast of the film is excellent from top to bottom, with some excellent casting choices by Shults and his team. Christopher Abbott plays Will and he just has the perfect face and disposition to be someone who you can trust, but might not be ready to go to sleep without one eye open. He’s earnest in his commitment to making things work, but when things get a little sticky he has just the right amount of shiftiness to him that we can’t quite read. Joel Edgerton is also excellent as Paul, a guy who is just trying to do what’s best for his family and doesn’t want to have to do the worst; but he will.
Riley Keough and Carmen Ejogo are both a little under served by the film, the trio of Edgerton, Abbott and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Travis) get the most screen time, but both women absolutely impress in the moments they do get. Ejogo is more quiet in her moments, silently and strongly dealing with the world forced upon them, but when she’s asked to turn it up at the end we don’t doubt her for a second. Keough has a pair of big scenes in the film, endlessly charming in one and devastating in the other. She’s directly tied to the film’s most memorable moment and I don’t think I’ll be able to shake it anytime soon. Harrison Jr. is the weakest of the cast, but he is pretty convincing nonetheless. I wish he maybe had one or two more scenes where he deals with his coming of age conundrum, but the film turns into its excellent finale just when Shults seemed like he was going to go somewhere further with that.
Shults has cemented himself as a director not to be missed with It Comes At Night, but I think viewers might be best served knowing what they are getting into here. This isn’t a film about finding answers, it’s about getting you to ask yourself what the fuck you would do in a situation like this. I would like to think our world couldn’t ever get to a place where we have to make decisions like the characters in It Comes At Night have to, but if things are going to shake out this way, I think it’s probably best to just die off in the first wave of disease and not have to get wrapped up in all of this intense drama.