I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we are in a golden age of horror. The last eight years have given us some of the most brilliant movies the genre has seen, driving directly to the heart of our basest fears and explored the things we struggle to understand, like depression, sex, and the trials of being deaf. The newest film in the genre, It Comes At Night, is something that I like to refer to as “moral horror”–a film that derives its scares and thrills by asking us questions that we are afraid to ask ourselves (think The Mist as a reference point), as well as our fears about disease. I’m not entirely convinced that writer/director Trey Edward Shults accomplishes every goal that he was going for, but the fact he manages to hit at least 90% of them in a fairly lean 90-minute runtime is an impressive feat in and of itself.
In the not-too-distant future, the world is ravaged by a highly contagious disease, one which results in almost-immediate decay and death, in that order. The film opens as patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) just had to put down Grandpa Bud (David Pendleton), who had caught the disease. The family has developed a system to protect themselves from the outside world, taking shelter in their secluded country home, taking shifts for meals and bathroom breaks, and always keeping the two outer doors locked at all times. However, things go awry when Will (Christopher Abbott), a young father, stumbles upon the family while scrounging for food. After tense negotiations, they allow Will to bring his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young child Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to live with them. Things go smoothly at first. However, as tensions rise, and mistakes are made, everyone is forced to confront not only their own mortality, but their own morality as well.
The title of this film is a bit misleading-it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that there really isn’t an “It” in this movie, nor does it go anywhere, and certainly not at night. No, this is a film that lives in its metaphors and its decisions. As mentioned above, the film explores two major themes in its thick-as-a-fishing-line runtime: mortality and morality. Allow me to break this down individually. The first theme, mortality, is fairly on the nose. As every great horror movie is designed to explore our fear of the abstract (depression, sex, misogyny, and the afterworld, to reference the best), so too does It Comes At Night explore our fears with the inevitable: our death, which will most likely come at the hands of some fatal disease. The ailment that pervades every second of this film is never named or explained, and that’s probably for the best-it allows our minds to make things out to be worse than they are-but it definitely brings to mind the worst we can think of-sometimes the film had me think of the plague, sometimes of the Spanish Flu, sometimes of AIDS, and sometimes of Ebola. We’re afraid of these diseases because, no matter how much faith we have one way or the other, no one knows with absolute certainty what comes after death, and that absolutely terrifies us. By exploring the idea of widespread death and destruction, the characters-and, by proxy, the audience-are forced to grapple with their own mortality. What do we do if we get sick? How soon will we die? What’s the best course of action to keep others from getting sick? Are we strong enough to deal with our dying relatives if we have to? And if we are all going to die eventually anyway, do our actions even matter? To that end, the film really is a powerful representation of what we feel when confronted with these realities. Indeed, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen as poignant a final shot as the last shot of this film, which lasts about eight seconds but feels like eight minutes.
However, the film isn’t willing to rest on the laurels of exploring mortality. It is equally interested in exploring the effects that our mortality has on our morality. Namely, what happens to our sense of right and wrong when we are confronted with a threat to the lives of those we love, as well as our own? To what lengths would you be willing to go to? Moral dilemmas often arise from these fears, and history has shown us that it often results in persecution, from witch-hunts to McCarthyism to jihads to Islamophobia. The allusions to these fears pervade any time one small thing goes wrong for the two families, as the blame is thrown around and our tensions slowly boil over. This is the tension that makes this film palpable, and it’s where the film shines best. There’s nothing that makes a good thriller like throwing a metaphorical live grenade into a room and watch people turn on each other to save their own skins. If the entire film had been based on the terror of these two human concepts, it might have been something great. Alas, Shults’ youth shines through, as he missteps with some sloppy dream sequence editing and a few unnecessary jump scares. It doesn’t exactly ruin the movie by any means, but it keeps it from reaching its full potential.
The performances in this movie serve the story adequately. No one is doing out-of-this-world work, but no one is truly terrible either. The three best are probably the adult leads, Edgerton, Ejogo and Abbott. Each has an emotionally charged moment that allows them to flex their acting muscles without ever overwhelming the story or their fellow actors. I suppose Edgerton has the most to do, and is the one who will walk away with the most praise, but I was more personally drawn to Abbott’s Will, who was enigmatic, yet likable all at the same time. I thought Keough was a nice addition to the cast, and she has some great moments, one involving a dinner table and the other near the end out in the woods, but I spent most of the time wondering where I know her from, something that doesn’t happen if you’re truly invested in the story. And of the children, I’m surprised to say that the toddler Griffin Robert Faulkner gives the best performance of the duo as young Andrew, hitting his emotional beats perfectly and always walking the line perfectly between innocent child and horror movie creep-out (like the kid from The Unborn or Danny from The Shining). Meanwhile, despite arguably playing the film’s lead in Travis, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. never fully convinces me of his character. Don’t get me wrong; he’s not exactly bad. In fact, given the circumstances, I think he’s quite fairly decent. It’s just I never felt as invested in the character as I need to for the plot to work. It’s possible that’s the way the character was written, but I can’t shake the feeling that I would have liked this movie just a bit more with another actor in the role.
It Comes At Night isn’t a perfect horror film, but it’s an interesting one. It grapples with heavy concepts in a mature, intriguing way, and never gives audiences the easy answers they want. It may not make for the easiest watch, or the best watch, but it certainly makes for the strongest watch. It’s not the best film of the current Golden Age of Horror, but it’s one that is definitely worth seeing.