Paranoia is powerful. At its grandest, it can bring down entire empires and nations and more intimately, it can also destroy friendships and families. It has also been a helpful seed in many a horror and sci-fi screenplays. Both Howard Hawks THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and John Carpenter’s reimagining deal with a small group besieged by an outside force, but ultimately it is their own, primitive distrust of one another that leads to their downfall. Paranoia is a concept that afflicts each and every generation, particularly of the political variety. (There’s a reason INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS has been remade as many times as it has) IT COMES AT NIGHT is an engaging thriller from writer/director Trey Edward Schults that feels very of its time in the new millennium, confronting with the modern day survivalist mentality and ever present xenophobia. The film—reminiscent of the films of George Romero—is a slickly paced tale, slowly revealing its themes of paranoia and family while never giving its characters easy answers and never asking the audience easy questions.
The film opens some time after a modern day Black Death of sorts has ravaged the United States of America. Told through the eyes of Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), IT COMES AT NIGHT opens with a startling visage of Travis’ grandfather who has been affected by the plague. Travis’ mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and father, Paul (Joel Edgerton) prepare grandfather for a funeral pyre overseen by Travis and Paul. The opening reveals just about all the information that the audience needs to know about the time and place. Once you’ve come in contact with the plague, you become sick, and you must be destroyed before the body can infect anyone else. There is a casual brutality to killing and destroying the grandfather’s body that speaks volumes about where the family stands mentally: survival is paramount above all and nobody is safe. That’s all Shults reveals, and that’s all the audience really needs to know. There’s no cure—and more importantly in this film—no quest to find the cure. IT COMES AT NIGHT isn’t about the virus or its physical effects, but how just the notion of impending death can tear people apart psychologically as well. Death is a constant shadow looming over us all, but rare is the person that wants to come to terms with it.
When the family’s woodland home comes under siege by a stranger, Will (Christopher Abbot), Paul, Travis, and Sarah quickly stop him leading to a tense interrogation by Paul as to where Will came from and why he attempted to enter the house. It is here that Will reveals that he has a family of his own and was simply looking for food and water. The two men reach a tenuous agreement, scooping up Will’s family—wife Kim (Riley Keogh) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), and eventually allowing them to join their homestead to live together, which goes swimmingly, until it doesn’t. Isn’t that always the case in these flicks?
IT COMES AT NIGHT could be considered Romerosploitation. The film has a very simple premise reminiscent of the director’s Vietnam era classic, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and even more so, THE CRAZIES which also features plenty of gas masks and a biological epidemic. Shults distills those elements and creates a much leaner film that Romero is known for and cuts out the director’s sillier bits, slapstick, and tendency—at least later in his career—to let the message get in the way of the film. There are plenty of ideas, concepts, and themes to chew on in IT COMES AT NIGHT, but at it is first and foremost an intense thriller.
The first act provides just enough scares and an uneasy tension to keep horror fans engaged, setting up a second act that recalls the shopping sequence of Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD with Flyboy and the gang having the run of the Monroeville Mall. The first act utilizes plenty of dark space, just outside of the lanterns and flashlights, playing up the idea that something unknown is out there waiting for the characters. Front loaded with some genuine scares and a bit of action, the film relaxes just enough to let the audience get to know and enjoy the characters, even if there is a lingering notion of distrust that looms over even the sequences of the two families working together like homesteaders in a western. The film is relatively humorless for the first couple reels, so the lighter moments provide a release before setting up the intense final act that hits like a gut punch.
Joel Edgerton shines as the patriarch of the family. A lesser film may have painted his character as a megalomaniacal villain, obsessed with the notion that his always right. Shult’s script smartly avoids that trap instead painting Paul as a smart man who has learned from past mistakes of his own—and societies throughout history—to make tough decisions to protect himself and his family. Schults also makes a very interesting decision with the character of Sarah, where he utilizes preconceived notions about the role of the mother in a household and subverts them to a terrifying effect when her character begins to act very pragmatically. Christopher Abbot deftly blends Will’s certain charm with a notion that he is not to be trusted that keeps the audience on its toes, even when every thing appears to be hunky dory the underlying tension eats away at you.
At the center of the film is Kelvin Harrison, Jr. It’s terrifying being a teenager and for Travis, that probably goes double living in a post-apocalyptic world with only your family and your dog. The film offers up some very human moments as Travis watches Kim from afar in a lustful way, the way a teenager who hasn’t seen a woman other than his mother for years would be prone to do. It’s a very relatable sequence that reminds the audience that Travis is still seventeen and hormones don’t quit even when the population is slowly dying off. This is another concept where Shultz’s script toys with audience’s expectations. Just when you think you know exactly where IT COMES AT NIGHT is going, it doesn’t and that is for the best.
It’s interesting to see how filmmakers will react to the current political climate. IT COMES AT NIGHT features a striking nihilism that recalls the horror films of the Nixon era but never falls into the traps of “throwback cinema.” The film is very now, very of the moment, and above all, viscerally thrilling. The film never offers easy answers; perhaps we’re only seeking a few moments of pleasure, because nobody gets out alive.