It’s a shame that the general movie public has seemed to shun It Comes At Night. Despite strong critical reviews, the film received a dismal “D” opening day CinemaScore and was met with a lukewarm $5.9 million opening weekend. I had a feeling the film would be more of a cerebral experience and that it could turn off young adults looking for the familiar frights they’re accustomed to and unfortunately I was right. Genre fans are always saying how they want the horror genre to be taken seriously and that it’s a respectable participant in the world of cinema but if films like this don’t receive our support, we will be stuck with films like The Bye Bye Man or Rings. Those films are cheap cash grabs that only seek to turn a profit opening weekend because they know once the word gets out, it’s all down hill from there. It Comes At Night is an adult psychological thriller and what makes it scary is that it deals with the dark area of our psyche. As it plays with the paranoia of its characters, it plays with ours and by the time it’s over you feel as if you’ve gone through the experiences that threaten to tear them all apart.
As the movie opens, we aren’t truly clear about not what’s going on. An old man, afflicted with some kind of disease, is surrounded by three people wearing gas masks. We soon learn why they’re there, what they’re doing, and how dire their circumstances are. They are Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Their task is to kill Sarah’s terminally ill father then burn his body. He has contracted a dangerously contagious illness that has ravaged the country. The deed done, they return inside their isolated house where it’s apparent that they are stuck in a terrible limbo where life is about survival. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, just an impenetrable fog of uncertainty and the recognition that any other human being can be a threat.
Their security is compromised when Will (Christopher Abbott), breaks in, thinking the place is abandoned. Paul knocks him out, ties him up, and waits to see whether there are indications of sickness. When it appears that the newcomer is healthy, Paul listens to Will’s story – he and his wife and son are also refugees – and agrees to help. In short time, the small group inside the house grows from three to six, with Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their son Edward providing companionship and help with chores. But what at first seems to be an amicable situation grows tense as small instances of dishonesty create fractures in the interpersonal dynamics. Meanwhile, there may be something out in the woods, watching and waiting.
The strongest aspect of the film is its mood. We’re immediately engulfed in the world that writer/director Trey Edward Shults has created and it’s certainly unsettling. In the film, the woods are a character and they surround the house with protection but it also hides potential threats. There is a moment when the dog runs off and once his barking stops, you feel as if only the woods know what happened to him.
The mood inside the house is claustrophobic. There growing paranoia within the home makes the setting feels small and very uncomfortable. This only grows as the film progresses and it adds to the scares. The film avoids most horror movie tropes but there are a few top notch jump scares that are aided by the mood and atmosphere that has been created. The audience is already uneasy so when they happen, they certainly raises the pulse.
I have to say, especially for a horror film made in 2017, I couldn’t tell where it was going. The film is peppered with red herrings and you can’t fully gage the intentions of the players involved. It’s a very Hitchcock approach to take and Shults handles his misdirections well. His goal is to keep us off balance and while the ending isn’t a complete blindside, it’s still surprising and ultimately satisfying.
All of the actors on display are top notch. Joel Edgerton & Christopher Abbott fully inhabit their characters and both show the different shades of doing what is necessary to protect their families. Their performances keep you on edge because, again, you’re so unsure of some of their intentions and they do their own brand of misdirection in their performances to keep us off track. The other members of the cast – Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Riley Keough, each get a moment or two that allows them to reach emotional heights that will make you remember them.
I really hope that the film does find an audience that will appreciate its various nuances. The general reaction on Twitter and other social media outlets appears to be negative but I implore you, if you’re looking for an adult psychological thriller that raises the tension by toying with the mind, this is the film for you and it’s worthy of your attention.