It Comes At Night is writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ follow-up to his superb debut Krisha and stars Joel Edgerton as a former teacher named Paul who lives in a desolate house in the woods with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they fight against a mysterious virus that has seemingly wiped out most of humanity. A stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house scavenging for supplies one night but after interrogating him, Paul learns that he has a family close by who are depending on him for survival. As a family man himself, Paul empathizes with Will’s situation and offers his house to the new family but seeds of mistrust and paranoia planted early on during their residency are eventually sown to devastating effect.
With its deliberate pacing and haunting imagery, It Comes At Night has discernible elements of both horror and thriller genres but the end result is something much more illusive and difficult to categorize with one neat label (this might explain why the marketing was a bit all over the place). There are some surprising scary moments and plenty of tense scenes as well but the film doesn’t move like any kind of conventional post-apocalyptic tale that we’ve seen so far, even if it does have a few of the genre’s nagging cliches. It’s defined more by mood and tone than any specific narrative choices as Shults casts a perpetual state of unrest across a cast of characters that seem to constantly be at wit’s end amidst increasingly dire circumstances.
While there are some clues early on as to what may be happening, there’s an intentional ambiguity to both the circumstances of the characters and the presumed threat that they are facing, which some will find maddening and others could find refreshing. I personally found myself at both ends of the spectrum while taking this movie in; I’m certainly not someone that needs to be spoon-fed exposition just to know what’s going on but I can also appreciate the need to set-up bits of background so that the payoffs can land more effectively. The push for more veiled storytelling seems to be built into the design of the film, as Shults has stated in interviews that he wanted the audience to know as much as the characters themselves know so that we can effectively feel like we’re a part of the story and not just experiencing it as passive viewers.
Even if the lack of clues were to leave one frustrated, it’s difficult to deny that It Comes At Night is masterful on nearly every technical level but especially in the lighting and location work, which contribute greatly to the ominous feeling of dread that is inescapable during the course of the movie. The decision to cast each scene primarily with either daylight or with limited illumination from lanterns is integral to creating a feeling of hopelessness, as every setting seems to be coated with the very thing that we’re taught to distrust. The set design of secluded stronghold seems to be maximized for discomfort as we witness characters crouch down just to make it through certain doorways or huddle closely together so that they can fit as one on top of the same bed.
In his first two features, Shults has demonstrated a deeply personal brand of filmmaking that is all too rare even in independent cinema but while Krisha seemed to have a more cathartic sense of purpose, it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s trying to say with this new venture. It’s a sorrowful tale about the terrors of facing the unknown and the darkest impulses that infect human nature but the kind of heartfelt connection to the material that was so evident in his debut is now shrouded by this nightmarish filter. Despite some of these more esoteric misgivings, It Comes At Night is an effective arthouse horror-thriller that will no doubt have people talking (and hopefully thinking) long after the credits roll.