"Do you have any idea what's going on out there?"
Early on in director Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night, Joel Edgerton's Paul asks Christopher Abbott's Will this question. All Will can do is shake his head. For the majority of the film, the audience is left in the dark as well, with Shults refusing to provide easy answers and instead forcing the audience to grapple with the world and moral dilemmas that he introduces. Set in a near-future where a virulent disease has ravaged the country, Shults' film focuses on two families struggling to survive in the wilderness as paranoia runs amok.
It Comes at Night has mistakenly been marketed as a horror film. Make no mistake, while the film certainly produces some effective moments of dread and terror, it plays more like a marriage between a psychological thriller and a family drama. Guessing from the initial reactions from the audience in my theater, I have a feeling that the film will play like last year's The VVitch. Not only did audience members walk out halfway through, but as the credits began to roll, I could hear some of them saying "What the f**k?" and "That was underwhelming." While audience members might have been expecting a film more akin to say, The Conjuring, as a result of the film's admittedly stellar trailer, Shults forgoes conventional jump scares and instead successfully mixes bone-chilling tension with a disquieting atmosphere.
Continuing with the comparisons to director Robert Eggers' The VVitch, which was coincidentally also by A24, I found that I preferred Shults' work. While both are armed with lavish cinematography and fantastic performances all around, something about The VVitch did not click with me upon viewing. I found it to be a film that I admired more than I enjoyed in large part due to its achievements in the technical departments. Perhaps it is Brian McOmber's score that makes the difference, which truly shines in Shults' film. Eerily effective, McOmber's score works perfectly in tandem with Drew Daniels' gorgeous photography to create an unsettling feeling throughout the course of the film.
However, the reason the film works rests solely on the shoulders of the performers, who sink themselves entirely into their roles. Joel Edgerton is the standout here, continuing to impress with every film of his that I watch. Edgerton adeptly portrays Paul, a father whose only goal is to ensure the survival of his family. The way in which he pursues that goal, however, is what lends Paul depth, allowing for riveting observation into the way in which he handles the increasingly tougher circumstances around him. As the film goes on, Edgerton brilliantly communicates the fear and paranoia required of him. Kelvin Harrison Jr. portrays his son Travis, and I was equally impressed by his performance. Despite Edgerton receiving top billing, the soul of the story lies with Travis. By allowing us to see his dreams and capturing his moments alone in the attic, Shults imbues Travis with a melancholic spark of humanity, as he wrestles with being a teenager in a world gone wrong. Additionally, the moral dilemmas that the film explores always keep Travis in mind, using him as the balance between the two families.
While Carmen Ejogo delivers a great performance as Paul's wife Sarah, Shults' screenplay falls a tad short when it comes to her characterization. While Paul and Travis both feel more realized as individuals, Sarah feels more one-dimensional, which stands in contrast to Riley Keough's Kim. Keough herself, who I first saw in Mad Max: Fury Road continues to impress and she does so again here. Lastly, Christopher Abbott does a stellar job as Kim's husband Will. An early interrogation sequence that features him as the one answering the questions left me shaken, in large part to his performance. Much like Edgerton's Paul, Will's only goal is to ensure the survival of his family, but Shults expertly manages to create tension arising from the irreconcilable differences between the two families.
Many have complained about the film's seemingly abrupt ending, but I believe that Shults ends it just as he should. The final shot is silent, yet haunting, as the framing communicates more than any dialogue could.
Shults does not deal in black and white, only in gray. There are no heroes and villains, only regular people struggling to survive amid an unspecified event that has brought humanity to its knees. Straightforward in its storytelling, free from unnecessary twists and turns, the film nonetheless manages to get under the skin. If you have not seen the trailer for Shults' film, but wish to see the film, then do not watch the trailer. However gripping the trailer might be, I am glad that I did not watch it before having seen the film. Go into it fresh, and you will be rewarded with one of the most thrilling films of 2017.
Rating: 9/10 (Amazing)