“It Comes at Night” has the title of a horror film and, at times, the mood of one, but it is far too restrained to get the juices of the genre crowd going.
That’s not an accident or a mistake, however. More likely, it’s a cheeky riff on the leaden, generic titles of so many jump-scare films before it. The “It” in writer and director Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night” might be the deadly disease that’s turned an isolated family into ruthless survivalists or the actual intruder that upends their lives; but it could just as well be the crippling and overwhelming power of doubt and paranoia. If that’s any indication, it shouldn’t be a surprise then that “It Comes at Night” is a psychological thriller that is more likely to haunt than scare.
That’s not to say there aren’t some moments that might make you yelp. Shults, in only his second feature following his splashy debut with the family psychodrama “Krisha,” stylishly and effectively builds tension and mystery in this stripped-down experiment that crescendos occasionally into the stuff of nightmares.
It’s centered on one family, Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and their dog Stanley. They live in a big house deep in the woods and entirely alone. There’s some sort of disease going around in the world outside of their protected fortress, and it’s turned people crazy and desperate. The disease itself, which hits quickly and is highly contagious, is barely explained. It’s also possible that it’s scarcely understood by these people. Nevertheless, they’ve decided that strict isolationism is the only means for survival.
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Still, something has managed to penetrate their barricade and made the grandfather ill. This is how the movie starts – with a stark image of a dying, decaying face. They bury him out back and thus are already on edge when someone breaks into their home as they sleep. Before they can even take a look at the trespasser’s face, Paul has already beat him to a pulp and tied him to a tree where he spends the night wailing.
Paul doesn’t trust this man, Will (Christopher Abbott), but after it’s established that he is not sick and is merely looking for water for his wife (Riley Keough) and kid (Griffin Robert Faulkner), the main family decides that the only option is to invite this new threesome to stay with them. They figure they can’t let them go now that they know where they live, so might as well band together.
As you might imagine, everything goes great in this away-from-the-apocalypse outpost for a while, but there is feeling that something is not quite right. Or maybe it’s just in their heads. Much of the weirdness comes from Travis, who is living out an already fraught time in life (the teen years) in a particularly fraught moment (the possible end of days?). He has visceral and terrifying nightmares about the unknown world around him and all that could go wrong, which are rather effective in propelling the sparse narrative forward.
What it all amounts to is something that should be questioned. It’s an interesting and stylish effort with not much good to say about humans, although perhaps it’s those dark, uncomfortable truths that Shults explored in “Krisha” that he likes best.
Disconcerting themes aside, with a bigger budget, and professional actors who aren’t members of his family, Shults continues to show real promise in world and mood creation and it will be exciting to see what he chooses to sink his teeth into next.
Even with the bare bones plot of “It Comes at Night,” somehow you find yourself suspicious of even the trees by the end. No zombies required.
‘It Comes at Night’
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Writer-director: Trey Edward Shults.
Running time: 97 minutes.
Rating: R (violence, disturbing images, and language).