Trey Edwards Shults knows how to do a lot with very little. With his debut feature, “Krisha,” he marshaled his friends and relatives for a shoot in a family home, whipping up a riveting drama centered around a dazzling starring performance from his aunt, Krisha Fairchild. Clearly he’s inspired by the inherent tensions within a family dynamic, and his sophomore feature, “It Comes At Night,” revolves around the questions of familial trust and distrust within a horror/thriller genre.
Once again, Shults demonstrates his extreme resourcefulness as a filmmaker, wringing blood-curdling tension out of controlled camera movements, creative practical lighting, and a red door. He shows a faculty for the kind of sophisticated horror filmmaking that knows not to show the monster, and in “It Comes At Night,” one starts to question if there’s even a monster at all.
The film takes place after a civilization-ending mass sickness. Shults follows the model of the recent “low-key apocalypse” genre: drop some actors in the woods, script a few lines about the power going out, or people getting sick, and watch humanity crumble as formerly decent people become desperate for resources. But “It Comes At Night” is one of the best examples of this genre, blending horror and thriller into the mix, and the result is a blood-curdling and gut-wrenching family tragedy.
Joel Edgerton stars as patriarch Paul, quarantined in a rambling home in the woods with his family: wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Their existence is violent, paranoid, and fearful, ruled by protocol, routine and protection. It’s surviving, but it’s so very, very far from living. Their bubble is pierced by an interloper, and that is truly the beginning of the end.
Shults’ camera has a mind of its own — it wanders down halls, and drifts to capture faces, and it has a tendency toward Travis, the confused and scared teenager in the house. Plagued with horrific nightmares, he wanders the house at night with a lantern, eavesdropping and trying to find a bit of solace. In all the paranoia and furor that develops, Travis serves as the moral North Star for the audience, when there is no moral compass left. In a film of uniformly great performances, Harrison is a standout. He is still and quiet, with turmoil churning just below the surface.
When we meet this family, we’re plunged into a world of mercy killings, body disposal, and a “shoot first” philosophy that makes you wonder what could have happened to make former history teacher Paul and his family so able to accept this existence. But Shults focuses far less on the external threats, because the internal ones are a greater danger to the characters in this film. It’s not the sickness that will kill anyone, but the suspicion of sickness, the tragically human flaws of distrust mixed with self-preservation that is almost always lethal.
The plot of “It Comes At Night” falls like a domino chain. Once one piece goes down, where we end up is inevitable, but the ending feels unsatisfactory. It’s the only place we could have ended up, and it’s ambiguous enough to allow for interpretation, but after the taut and deftly executed thrills of the first three-quarters of the film, “It Comes At Night” exits with a whimper, after a bang.
‘It Comes at Night’
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough
Running time: 97 minutes