It Comes At Night (2017, 1hr 31 mins.)
How will the world take the dissolution of society as we know it? Will we isolate ourselves, band together or give in to our basest instincts? We’ve already taken the zombie route in the post-apocalyptic world with many films and shows including The Walking Dead, but Trey Edward Shults’ film It Comes at Night, which debuted at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival, takes us to these uncomfortable places by exploring the horrors of human nature when faced with an unknown threat.
Paul (Joel Edgerton) Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenaged son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), live in a boarded up rambling house deep in the woods. Society has fallen to an unknown illness, leaving the family to fend for themselves away from cities and those who could be carrying the disease. When Travis witnesses his grandfather falling to the disease and his father’s matter-of-fact disposal of the body, the experience has left him with vivid nightmares and in a state of shock.
When the family catch an intruder in their home, they find that he is just looking for a safe haven. Will, the intruder (Christopher Abbott), has his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) hidden in an abandoned home nearby and are equally terrified of contracting the disease. After a tough interrogation from Paul, he invites Will and his family to come and live in his forest fortress since Sarah feels there is strength in numbers. With the new family comes a renewed sense of hope. This is short-lived however, as human contact pits man against man and each is tested to do the right thing to stay alive.
Shults’ film is a build-up to a big lesson in human nature. The limits of how much we trust our fellow human being is complicated with our primal fears, denial and what we believe to be true. Perceptions are key in this film, as well as perspectives. Shults and his cinematographer Drew Daniels are very skilled at showing us perspective through the camera lens. With wide forest shots, close-ups lit only by a lantern, and slow-moving stedicam shots as we glided through Travis’ nightmares, they switched the mood from dread to terror effectively. The smart use of limited spaces also created an interesting way to focus on the isolation of this new world and internal turmoil. Claustrophobic and myopic, we get a sense of what the characters are feeling in this tense story. It was also interesting that Shults doesn’t reveal character names until well into the first act. It’s as if names don’t matter anymore because relationships seem difficult to maintain in this harsh place.
The performances were amazing. Edgerton played Paul with a restrained melancholy, giving us a glimpse of the comfortable teacher’s life he left behind, replacing it with a steel-hearted survivalist mode. Ejogo was a contrasting softer side of his forced strength, steering him away from a total lack of compassion. While she was a strong character, she was able to show some vulnerability instead of the stoic “stiff-upper lip” stereotype for Black female roles. They were great choices for the protective parents, and Abbott, most known for his role in Girls, impressed as a desperate man trying to survive the aftermath of this diseased environment. The standout for me however, was Harrison Jr. His portrayal of Travis was riveting, and his character served as a barometer for humanity. His sweet nature and sensitivity combined with his terrifying nightmares made him the most present even though he seemed to be in another world. It’s not explained if this was attributed to the constant traumatic events or what appeared to be a slight mental disability. Whatever the case, his was a portentous existence guiding the audience through the brutality of this new world.
The flaws and degradation of humanity in this film left me feeling profoundly sad, but the hype about it is true. It’s a different type of horror film and a must-see for all of us in this era of desensitization and brutality. You’ll be left thinking about survival and the tough lessons that makes us examine the basics of who we are as humans.