While firmly and intensely sticking to its minimalistic setting, “It Comes at Night” works as a terrifying psychological horror film. As its few characters struggle with fears and uncertainties in their gloomy circumstance, the movie pushes them further to its inevitable plot point, and we come to brace ourselves as dreading what will happen next to them.
After the calm but chilly opening scene, the movie lets us slowly gather what has been going on in their world. As an unknown lethal plague was spread widely around the world some time ago, the human civilization was accordingly collapsed, and remaining survivors still have to be cautious about infection while they try to survive another day. In case of a guy named Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his few family members, they have been hiding alone in a boarded-up house located somewhere in the middle of a rural forest, and they have been strictly following Paul’s few rules for their safety. They never go outside at night, and they also never wander around alone outside during daytime. The house has only one door for entry, and this red-colored door is always locked whenever night begins.
However, things have recently been not very good for this family. As shown from the opening scene, Paul’s father-in-law happens to contract the disease, and Paul and his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) have no choice but to kill him. While wearing gas masks for not getting infected, they give him some comforting words before Paul eventually executes a mercy killing on his father-in-law, and then he and his teenage son Travis (Klevin Harrison Jr.) take the body outside for burning it in a shallow grave.
As a part of his life is gone forever along with his grandfather, Travis becomes morose and agitated. Although a family dog gives him some comfort at least, he often has nightmares associated with death, and there is a striking moment when the camera closely focuses on a copy of “The Triumph of Death”, a famous oil panel painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Although the movie never shows us the world outside the forest, several disturbing elements in that painting are more than enough for us to feel the gloomy apocalyptic atmosphere surrounding its characters, and we come to wonder whether they will ever be free from their isolated status.
And then there comes an unexpected change. In the middle of one night, the family is awakened by the presence of someone intruding into their house, and that is how they meet a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott), who says that he is simply looking for water for his wife and young son. Paul does not trust this guy much, but he decides to check out whether Will’s words are true or not, and it turns out that Will does have a wife and a son. Although Paul has some reservation about letting strangers into his house, he allows Will and his family to stay in the house anyway, and the mood in the house becomes a bit brighter as these two families interact more with each other.
Of course, the movie eventually takes a dark plot turn later in the story, and director/writer Trey Edward Shults, who previously made a remarkable debut with “Krisha” (2015), dials up the level of tension more as doling out a series of nervous moments. Thanks to his cinematographer Drew Daniels, who previously collaborated with Shults in “Krisha”, many key scenes in the movie are imbued with moody creepiness, and the night scenes in the movie are visually striking for its impressive utilization of lights and shadows.
I should point out that “It Comes at Night” can be frustrating for you as adamantly refusing to give answers to a few questions in the story. For instance, we never get a clear answer on what exactly happens to the family dog at one point, and the movie is also rather ambiguous about one night when Travis comes across a couple of strange things.
However, the movie gives us an intense experience as intently focusing on its characters, and the performers in the movie are believable as their characters are pushed more into fear, anxiety, and distrust. Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo ably fill their archetype roles, and Christopher Abbott, who recently impressed me a lot with his breakthrough performance in “James White” (2015), is also solid as he deftly balances his character well between trustworthiness and being suspicion. Will is a mostly friendly guy, but it seems that he does not reveal everything to Paul and Paul’s family, and we cannot help but be suspicious about Will as much as Paul when he says something which does not fit well with what he said to Paul before.
In what may be a breakout turn in his burgeoning acting career, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is commendable as the harrowing emotional center of the film. While his character’s viewpoint becomes rather unreliable later in the movie, Harrison keeps engaging us through his unadorned natural performance, and we come to emphasize a lot with his character’s ongoing emotional turmoil, which is further fueled by what is going on inside his house.
“It Comes at Night” will dissatisfy you if you expect something like “28 Days later…” (2002), but you will enjoy it if you are well aware of what it intends to do in advance. As a guy who prefers mood and suspense to shock, I really appreciate what is achieved in the film, and I admire how Shults did his own things well while clearly influenced by many other horror films including “Night of the Living Dead” (1967) and “The Shining” (1980). Fear eats their souls indeed, and that will surely scare you a lot.