Film Review: ‘It Comes at Night’

It Comes at Night
Courtesy of A24

It looks like a zombie movie, but Trey Edward Shults' thriller is a cabin-in-the-woods drama more psychological than sensational.

The elements are so familiar they’re almost comforting. A cabin in the middle of the woods. A group of nerve-rattled folks who’ve barricaded themselves inside. The dread of invaders who carry a plague that spreads on contact. Look closely — has the person next to you become one of the infected and the doomed? It’s the stuff of a thousand zombie movies (or foaming-virus movies), and “It Comes at Night” succeeds in conjuring a tense survivalist atmosphere redolent of the walking dead and the desperate living. The film uses the pitch black of night, lit by flashlights (no cheating!), and does so with a nightmare finesse that’s reminiscent, at times, of “The Blair Witch Project.”

For all that, where’s the novelty, the thing that makes this movie different? It is this: “It Comes at Night” feels as though it could be a supernatural horror film, but it isn’t. It’s not about zombies or any other sort of humanoid creature rising up from the dead; the mysterious disease at its center is presented in low-key realistic terms, as an actual illness, without one scene of a TV newscaster breathlessly reporting the apocalypse. The movie is a close-quarters psychological thriller built artfully and honestly, from the ground up, with more of a nod to early John Carpenter than mid-period Danny Boyle.

In theory, I applaud the existence of a movie like this one, and “It Comes at Night” is a good, tight, impressive little exercise. I was held by it, but the movie, while tense and absorbing, is ultimately a tad forgettable, because it thinks it’s up to more than it is. This is the second feature written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, who became an instant critics’ darling with his first film, last year’s “Krisha,” a high-wire autobiographical psychodrama that took a dizzying plunge into the vortex of addiction. Following “Krisha” with a thriller was the right move — it’s Shults proving his chops — but the characters in “It Comes at Night,” while well-written and acted, never attain what the filmmaker appears to be aiming for, which is an existence dramatic enough to transcend the genre-movie fix they’re in.

Taken as B-movie characters, however, they pop just enough. Joel Edgerton (who’s the film’s executive producer), hidden under a husky beard, is terse and minimal as Paul, who owns the woodland house in which the film is set. He’s holed up there with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), as well as their mangy mutt, Stanley. That this is a mixed-race family, and that the fact is never once alluded to (or played upon), seems like progress, though I got the impression that Shults thought he was saying something by not saying anything, the way George A. Romero did when he chose a black hero for “Night of Living Dead” without making reference to it.

In the opening scene, Paul drags a body riddled with plague sores — but still alive — out into the yard, and proceeds to shoot it dead and set it aflame with gasoline and a flair. It is Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), the family’s first victim, and a warning of how grisly this disease can get. Paul has put a rigid set of rules in place (the meticulous wearing of gas masks; only one door can be used, and it’s bolted at all times), so when someone tries to break in during the middle of the night, the whole family is understandably spooked. But it’s just Will (Christopher Abbott), a husband and father looking for water and shelter for his own small clan.

Paul, figuring that there’s safety in numbers, invites Will to stay in the house along with his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and toddler son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), and this throwing together of two three-person families creates a pressure cooker of camaraderie and mistrust that’s the real essence of the movie. The slowly brewing stand-off between Paul and Will is a situation that Polanski or Peckinpah would have mined for intensity, though Shults stages it with a touchy-feely millennial empathy. He sees the good in everyone, which isn’t always good for a movie’s interior hum.

That said, he’s an instinctive filmmaker with the ability to make scenes taut and cinematic, even though the action rarely leaves the cabin. The house is almost literally roomy, divided into chambers that only make it feel more claustrophobic, and with an attic that’s ready-made for spying. As soon as Will’s family are settled into their bedroom, Kelvin goes up there to listen in on them, which is presented (mostly) as adolescent curiosity, though he does have a horny crush on Kim, played by the magnetic Riley Keough as a wholesome hippie earth mother (you almost can’t believe that this is the same actress who portrayed the viciously controlling vagabond-youth leader in “American Honey”). That’s one example of how the movie plants dramatic seeds that don’t fully pay off.

To give away more would just step on the film’s tiny humanist fragments of suspense. “It Comes at Night,” despite its Roger Corman title, isn’t an outrageous dark ride in a confined space, like “10 Cloverfield Lane.” It sticks to the rules it sets up, and it presents itself as less a freak-out than a tragedy. It deserves to find an audience, and likely will, though it’s possible that portions of that audience will turn on the movie for the very thing that’s good about it: its refusal to go over-the-top.

Film Review: 'It Comes at Night'

Reviewed at Park Avenue Screening Room, New York, May 12, 2017. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production

An A24 release of an Animal Kingdom production. Producers: David Kaplan, Andrea Roa. Executive producer: Joel Edgerton.

Crew

Director, screenplay: Trey Edward Shults. Camera (color, widescreen): Drew Daniels. Editors: Matthew Hannam, Trey Edward Shults.

With

Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough.

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  1. Lucinda Scott says:

    Sorry to say this is the worst movie I ever seen in my whole entire life no beginning no middle no end didn’t understand anything about it quote nothing came out at night end of quote.

  2. Norah says:

    You used the wrong spelling of “flare”

  3. Tony says:

    Very generous review; very disappointing film. Be warned. It is NOT a horror movie at all. Still, it moves briskly and the acting is believable enough. But in the end, nothing really happens and you leave feeling like you just wasted your time and money.

  4. Jeremy Brooks says:

    I just saw this movie a few hours ago. I was very disappointed in how the film was marketed. It is not a thriller/horror movie, but more of a REALLY depressing drama that leaves a lot of unanswered questions. I thought the acting was good and I believed in the characters (especially Kelvin Harrison Jr. As Travis), but in my view the movie suffered from some lazy writing. Still, it’s worth viewing as long as you don’t go expecting to see a horror movie.

  5. Sean says:

    This movie is terrible. It iss slow and leads to nothing.
    Vaguely tries to set a mood and doesn’t even attempt to tell a story.
    Every character is a cliche, without any development.
    It is so boring and leads to nothing…while the whole time your keenly aware that the director is very pleased with himself. Has the feeling of nepotism got this film funded, pushed through and picked up by A24.
    …a softie liberal arts students wet dream of surviving the dystopian future…

    FAIL

  6. Bill B. says:

    Much of this makes me really want to see this, but the mention that it’s reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project is a caution. I will never understand the phenomenal success of that truly awful piece of film making. The only thing of any interest in the film was a oddly disturbing final shot.

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