There are two things that you should probably know about me as a Filmsmith if you didn’t know them already.
- I can’t stand most of the horror films that the general audience laps up.
- When I find a new horror film that is actually good, I’ll campaign for it until my dying breath.
Speaking of, have you seen It Follows, The Babadook, The VVitch, or Get Out yet? You really should. They don’t fall in line with the wide span of mainstream horror films that are all about blunt jumpscares, violence with no purpose or feeling, and no real direction or connection to anything real. The films I just listed aren’t about being surprised by loud noises, they’re about gripping the armrest because the tension and sense of dread are too much to bear. It isn’t about the scary monster you see on the screen, but about the possibility of what is lurking just outside the frame. These are the horror films that I actively try to share with the world.
This is why I’ll be telling you all about It Comes At Night as often as I can.
It Comes As Night is the sophomore feature from director Trey Edward Shults, who took the indie film world by storm last year with his debut, Krisha. He also shares my birthday, so that’s pretty neat.
The film stars Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and relative newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a family living isolated in the woods. They wear gas masks and gloves to be safe, they keep all of their doors locked at all times, and they do not go out at night unless it’s a necessity. A stranger arrives and throws all of their safety into a tailspin.
This is literally all that I knew about the film going in, and that’s the way I prefer it. We’ve discussed on this site before how problematic modern trailers are with how frequently third-act revelations are used to entice moviegoers.
If you want to know as little as possible, skip this next section. If you’ve already seen it, or aren’t worried about knowing more, keep reading.
LET’S TALK A BIT MORE ABOUT THE PLOT NOW.
One of my favorite rules of film is “Show, don’t tell, and imply when you can”. This film is a perfect example of that. Typically, a film like this will start with a title card or on-the-nose narration about exactly what happened before the events of the film begin so that the audience has no questions. It Comes At Night begins right in the middle of things, and it takes no time to catch the audience up. It trusts you to be able to follow along and make your own decisions on what happened, because it never really answers you.
What we know is that Paul (Edgerton), Sarah (Ejogo), and Travis (Harrison) live in the woods with Sarah’s father, Bud. Bud is very ill, and his disease appears to be what has ravaged the outside world as well, considering the family keeps him in a locked room covered in tarps and only approaches with gas masks and rubber gloves. Bud appears to be too far gone, however, with black blood coming from his mouth and blisters covering his body. Paul has to take him outside, lay him in a freshly dug hole, kill him and burn the body. The tall flames give off a thick black smoke as the title appears on screen, and it’s the first of many striking visuals that cinematographer Drew Daniels has to offer.
Shortly after, the family is awoken in the dead of night to the sounds of someone in their house. They all put their masks and gloves on, grab guns, and approach the locked red door. There is one room between the red door and the outside, so any noise coming from that room is a dangerous sign. Paul enters the room alone and finds a scared and pleading man with a bandana over his mouth, so he knocks the intruder out. Paul ties the intruder to a tree to see if he’s sick or not, and also to question him in the morning. This man is Will (Christopher Abbott), who explains that he was looking for water to bring back to his wife and child, and he thought the house was abandoned. After confirming that the man is not ill, Paul agrees to take him back home to ensure his family is healthy, and then they’ll all come back and stay together. Everything seems to check out, so they come back with Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son, Andrew. Paul explains the rules of the house, and they carry on.
I’ve never actually been this conflicted about discussing the plot of a film. If you’re reading this because you’re not really upset by spoilers or because you need to know before you see it (I know several people like this and I understand their rationale), I’m not sure that I feel comfortable doing that for you. I wish for the rest of the film to be entirely fresh and surprising to you, as it was for me. You may pursue spoilers elsewhere, but I want it to be new to you.
NO MORE SPOILERS, LET’S TALK.
I already know why some people won’t like this. They’ll think it’s boring, that nothing ever really happens. They’ll be upset about the lack of concrete answers. That’s perfectly fine and all, but those people and I disagree on how to make a horror film.
Trey Edward Shults’ direction is exquisite and minimal at times; he doesn’t get in the way of what is going on, and he doesn’t need flair to draw your eye. Shults is merely the vessel to point us at the unfolding story. Drew Daniels is the perfect companion on this, as his work is so stunning and haunting that a single frame can inspire awe and fear without any dialogue or music required.
Tension is the best way to build a film like this, and the pacing is perfect. It Comes At Night clocks in at only 91 minutes, yet it somehow feels both double and half that length all at once. The film is able to fit so much paranoia and confusion within, yet it barely takes long enough for the sun to have moved since you walked in the theater. Too many movies get bogged down in exposition and unnecessary scenes, frequently approaching 2.5 hours when about 80% of it would work just fine. There is no fat to trim here, no scene without a purpose, and it doesn’t waste any time.
The cast deserves all the recognition in the world. Joel Edgerton has wowed in films like Animal Kingdom, Warrior, and Loving, but I believe this might even top Black Mass as his best performance to date. His character reeks of a single-minded desperation to protect his family, and Carmen Ejogo (stunning in Selma and Born To Be Blue) provides the perfect rock to balance him. Abbott (Girls, James White) and Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road, American Honey) make the absolute most of every scene they’re a part of, but the young Kelvin Harrison Jr. really does steal the show with his performance, and marks himself as someone to keep your eye on.
Also, if you’re interested, It Comes At Night joins last year’s The VVitch in the “Black Phillip Cinematic Universe“, so that definitely counts as a positive.
It Comes At Night: 9/10