It Comes at Night review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There was an argument in the lobby after It Comes At Night. The film was marketed as a horror film, but the audience disagreed with the genre title, believing it to be more of a thriller. Is it though? What constitutes horror? Must there be blood and gore? Should there be a monster in the woods or a slasher behind the walls? Everyone seems to have a definition. Mine is that if a movie can bring out some sense of terror that can creep deep into your skin with unease, it’s horror. And this film is most definitely a horror picture.
I think the confusion comes in the expectation of a monster from the “It” in the title. The “it” is most likely the disease that has wiped out most of mankind. The first few shots show what happens to you when infected. You look tired, your skin gray, your veins bulging, words garbled and vomit black. This is the case for the elderly grandpa of a family living in the woods. They take the precautions of taking the old man’s dead body out into the woods, digging a grave and setting his body aflame. They’re smart enough to survive the fall of man. Perhaps too smart.
The family is composed of Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and his teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Far from civilization, they live a simple and safe life in their cabin. They hunt and maintain the home by day, sealing it off at night to any outside forces. When they come across a man trying to break into their house, Paul puts him through the ultimate test. He ties the man up outside for a day, seeing if anyone else comes looking for him. After a bit of interrogation, Paul learns the man’s name is Will (Christopher Abbott) and that he has a family of his own he is looking out for. With his livestock, Will proposes an alliance between the families as they can help each other. It sounds good for all involved, but Paul isn’t yet swayed, even when he agrees to move Will’s family in with them.
For most of the film, we see Paul’s external distrust and Travis’s uncertain mind. On one level, we agree with Paul’s measures to ensure his family’s safety, but it will eventually reach a degree where the audience will have to distance themselves. Being so detached from humanity, Paul has become less human and more of a protector that has shut out all emotion, to the point that he won’t hesitate to slaughter anybody that might present a modicum of instability.
Travis, however, is more haunted and quiet in dealing with the situation. He befriends Will’s family quickly, making friends with his little boy and unknowingly flirting with his wife. While it does feel good to speak with others outside of his family finally, there is still much weight in his mind. He continuously has nightmares and visions of his dead grandfather and spewing up black blood. Are these the early signs of the disease? Hard to say, but it’s a constant fear he keeps to himself, as are his terrors about what could go wrong with his father’s constant paranoia. Travis grows almost to accept the dangers, watching them proceed with a practically nihilistic allure for what he fears might be his final days.
This is a film that’s all about atmosphere, and director Trey Edward Shults knows precisely how to creep us out with little more than a dark hallway. One of the scariest places in the house is a mudroom that has been sealed off, the door to the outside replaced with a tarp. It comes off like an airlock into space, made all the more frightening for whatever noise may come from there at night. It could be someone trying to break in and steal their resources. It could be a wild animal. It could be just the wind.
When the film ended, there was an odd hush among the press as we all sat in stunned silence. Usually, one or two people will pipe up with an exclamation or brief utterance of their immediate thoughts, but not this time. The ending of It Comes At Night creates such a dark and depressing feeling in the end that I think we all had to sit there and just let it stew for a moment. Days later, the film still haunted me with the most intense of situations and a grim finale that brews emotions both blunt and uneasy. As much as I love the horror offerings of this year, I’ve got to hand it to this film for creating a chilling dread that lasted long after I left the theater. Forget creepy dolls, ghoulish zombies, and masked killers; this is the true terror.