If I trust the reaction of my audience, you better run to It Comes at Night: it won’t play in theaters much longer. Set in a rural part of the United States after an unspoken apocalypse, perhaps a pandemic, It Comes at Night doesn’t pander; it presents a scenario of unrelenting grimness. This is an elegantly directed and well-acted film.
You know you’re in for it when the first scene shows an old man, face covered in pustules, shot by son-in-law Paul (Joel Edgerton), then stuffed into a body bag and set on fire for imminent burial. Wearing HAZMAT gloves and masks, Paul and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) finish their work like professionals. They and Paul’s wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) live in a spacious home at the edge of the woods. The dog’s trained to bark at strangers. The foyer’s door and windows are covered in plastic. There is a sense of impending disaster or disaster survived, portended in Travis’ dreams of his dead grandfather, vomiting a black viscous liquid.
Then the disaster approaches their front door. A man burgles their home. After holding him prisoner by tying him to a tree, Paul determines that the man, Will (Christopher Abbott), is who he says he is: a survivor as frightened as Paul, with a wife and son who need water. He has goats and chickens — perhaps they can trade? Sarah goes one better: why not bring everyone over? On the way to Paul’s they are ambushed. Who they are and what they represent matters little to Paul, and Joel Edgerton’s small frightened eyes, glowing fiercely against rock-hewn cheekbones, are expert at registering fear. Soon Paul’s rifle finds its mark, and two more men are burned and buried in the forest. When they return to Paul’s with Will’s wife Kim and son Andrew, the boarders get strict instructions: no one goes into the forest alone, even for chores; guns are locked in safes. Inevitably the families develop an intimacy. The faintest suggestion of sexual tension flickers between teenage Travis and Kim (Riley Keough). Paul and Will bond over late night whiskey; during one of those sessions Paul, alert to betrayal, catches Will in a lie. Things start to rock and roll after the dog disappears in the woods in pursuit of unseen intruders.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, whose Krista made for a solid debut last year, It Comes at Night makes no fuss over its crinkles. Paul and Sarah’s mixed marriage, that aforementioned tension between their son and Kim, the disinterest in expository dialogue — these are pleasures in themselves (in addition, It Comes at Night is, like Get Out, yet another studio release with box office on its mind with a young black male as protagonist, so there’s hope). Also a relief is a young director so crisp with his camerawork; editing is minimal, thanks to which the oft-traversed terrain of blurring dream and reality has the verisimilitude of shared experience. To name the source of the terror is to banalize it. The abruptness with which It Comes at Night ends surprised me — my audience looked like it was going to stone the theater cleanup crew — but thinking about it the rest of the day it made sense. Like the mysterious malady, Shults spares no one.