A24’s contagion chiller is brilliant; a sobering, saddening mood piece.
A red door. The sole entrance and exit to the boarded, weathered fortress which protects from the perils lingering beyond. It has but a single key – worn upon the neck of Joel Edgerton’s growling authoritarian – and is to remain shut and bolted at all times. The rules and regulations the tight-knit family unit of writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore effort, It Comes at Night, abide by induces as much paranoia and distrust as whatever horrors lurk in the decrepit woods which surround.
The latest from master independent outfit A24 (that’s “A Twenty-Four”, by the way), echoes reflective rhythms of their earlier chiller, The VVitch; weaving a dread-inducing tapestry of heightened atmosphere, scattered shadows, and isolated voices. It is a film of slight, yet potent, power – the type of cinema which seeps into the darkest recesses of your psyche, drip-feeding anxiety with each passing frame. Expect a traditional horror – jump-scares and all – and you’ll be sorely disappointed. Approach with thought, and you’ll experience an enriching, emotional, and most accomplished piece of work.
At just 28 years of age, Shults confirms himself as a vibrant voice in postmodern American filmmaking. It Comes at Night is a textured, beautifully measured study; one which crafts a landscape of characterisation, enabling those caught in its dwellings to be rendered by its experiences and developments. Set in the wake of an undisclosed apocalypse – in which humanity has been largely exterminated by an unspecified plague outbreak – Paul (Edgerton) burns the rotting, infected body of his father-in-law. This shallow grave, roaring orange flames puncturing the cold grey skies, sets the tone for Shults’ film brutally and brilliantly; it is a sad and uncompromising world – a place where our love and loyalties are forever tested, and where we are forced back to our primal instincts of protection and survival.
Cooped up in their admittedly large, yet despairing, home, Paul’s priorities are his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17 year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) – who is silently traumatised by the sight of his beloved grandfather. We soon learn the structure of life here: only go out in pairs, everyone eats together, nobody goes out at night. Shortly after the dust settles, an intruder attempts to break in; his name is Will (Christopher Abbott), and he’s simply in search of food and water. Paul considers the option of moving this stranger, and his young family including wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and infant son, Andrew, in to their home, therefore strengthening their protection from further threat, and reaping the benefits of Will’s livestock. The deal brings friendship, too; a rare warmth amidst the eternal sorrow, and things start out strong, but the newcomers’ presence also brings a host of wider emotions and ills which they hadn’t counted on: desire, paranoia, guilt.
Now, to answer question upon lips of the many: is It Comes at Night “scary”? Well, if your definition of “scary” is slamming IKEA furniture akin Paranormal Activity, then no. But if your “scary” is that feeling of a cold hand grasping the back of the neck, or the way candlelight flickers in the swallowing darkness, then yes; yes it really is. Because you see fear is an emotion we tap into, as opposed to a label, and Shults understands this to an astonishing degree. Sure, there are images here which are horrifying, but the clear focal point for horror is tonal; building a nauseating aura of the untold, a fragrance of solitary in the many lonely halls and rooms. That fact that the titular entity, or virus, or anything which “comes at night” is without address solidifies the level of unease which fills the supple 91 minute duration.
Shot with sobering intent by DP Drew Daniels, the film maintains a skeletal colour palette and visual aesthetic. Rich with jet blacks, and ash greens, the weathered woodlands, and neglected habitats, simmer with apprehension. Often the frame will slice, or condense, from the side up, or the top down, as tormenting shadowplay absorbs the lens; forcing our characters into even tighter, and therefore vulnerable spaces. Elevated by a rustic, tactile score from Brian McOmber, which rumbles and whines as the tension forever mounts, It Comes at Night creeps into our sensory banquet from all angles.
The compact cast is uniformly excellent, with Edgerton commanding both his counterparts and the spectators with ferocious intimacy. This is a persona with plentiful shades – layers delicately chipped away like axe to firewood – and watching Paul unravel is desperately rewarding. Keough continues to prove herself as one exciting talent, as she furthers her tradition of compelling roles in complex cinema, whilst young Harrison Jr. often steals proceedings as the wide-eyed soul, shattered by the toxicity of his world, and the few among it.
Shults’ finite view of a crumbling dystopia is both saddening and skin-crawling; the kind of cinema which doesn’t conclude at curtain call, rather following you around like a second shadow. It is a fantastically unnerving, and often unflinching mood piece, which forces its audience – just like its protagonists – into dark and unsavoury places.
It Comes at Night is out now in UK cinemas.