Last year, the world finally caught up with Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, which we hailed as “one of the finest and most assured cinematic debuts in recent memory.” By casting his own family and adopting an improvisational approach laden with long, woozy, uninterrupted shots, Shults managed to turn a film about a family’s misbegotten Thanksgiving into one of the most intimate and unsettling films of this century. Unlike Krisha, Shults’ sophomore feature It Comes at Night presents itself as a horror movie which, in a weird way, makes it less scary than its predecessor. The good news, however, is that Shults has only grown as a filmmaker. If people weren’t watching already, they should be now.
As with Krisha, It Comes at Night centers around a family: Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). There’s also Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), who is crumbling amidst the sores and hives endemic of a plague of apocalyptic proportions. Sarah, muffled beneath a gas mask, says goodbye before Paul wheels him into the surrounding woods, kills him, and sets the body on fire. Maybe it’s the smoke or maybe it’s just coincidence, but the next night finds an intruder breaking into their boarded-up homestead. It’s a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims he’s got a wife, child, and plentiful food supply up the road. Out of practicality as much as loneliness, the two families eventually shack up. That alone doesn’t bring them together as one family, however, and therein lies the conflict.
Shults has said that It Comes at Night was inspired by the death of his absent, alcoholic father, a presence who also haunted Krisha. And Krisha, it should be said, resonated for its bravely unflinching look at how some familial relationships are beyond saving. It Comes at Night is also about family, but its approach is more pointed: at what point does the fear of losing one’s family become overwhelming? In the wake of a great tragedy, is it possible to ever trust anybody but your own? And what are the consequences of that trust (or, in this case, that lack of it)?
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It’s telling that the monster in Shults’ film is microscopic. The invisible threat lurks around every corner, along the splintered wood and stacked shelves of a darkened hallway. Shults’ camera navigates them with the slow, deliberate pace of Lost Highway-era Lynch, and often pauses to ponder what could lie beyond a dark doorway or a ridge at twilight. This is psychological horror; the monsters are the ones we create.
And we do create them, Edgerton’s Paul more than anyone. Edgerton, buried in a thick and wooly beard, imbues Paul with a gritty paranoia that flares at even the most minor offenses. Sarah works to counterbalance, with Ejogo exuding a sense of compassion that’s nevertheless undercut by her loss. Abbott, whose work in James White (and his single episode of HBO’s Enlightened, which is masterful) has recently scored him accolades, further cements himself as one of the most exciting young actors working today. Though he projects tenderness, there’s a squirmy desperation lurking beneath Abbott’s character that resonates as untrustworthy. But it’s Harrison Jr. who truly stands out in the ensemble, both for the actor’s earnestly quizzical nature and for Travis’ emotional complexity. More than any other character, we see Travis yearn, fantasize, laugh, and cry.
He also suffers from horrible nightmares, the likes of which are filmed with a swift, graceful hand by Shults. The viewer experiences Travis’ dreams as he would: with the passing of a shadow, often in medias res. Stark, horrifying images emerge, blending with a reality that’s becoming more and more fluid by the moment. Like Lynch, he can seamlessly glide between reality and dreamscapes, but like David Gordon Green, he also possesses the ability to do so between simple, specific character beats that tighten the story and embrace the ineffable. There’s truly not a wasted moment in this film, which is astounding for such a young director.
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Still, it almost feels as if Shults’ particular brand of horror operates best outside the playground of traditional horror. While the post-apocalyptic setting gives the film some serious stakes, it also brings with it the baggage of countless end-times stories before it. Krisha was shocking because it explored pitch-black familial themes in a setting that was ostensibly toothless. It Comes at Night, on the other hand, can’t help but veer into thematic territory that’s been explored ad nauseum in everything from Night of Living Dead and The Road to The Stand and The Walking Dead. The perils of trust, the compromise of one’s soul, the sacrifices of safety — we’ve seen it.
It Comes at Night isn’t scary so much as it’s horrific, though Shults is extremely gifted at cultivating the kind of slow, droning dread that inflates in your chest like a black balloon. For that alone, the film will likely earn its place on any horror fanatic’s best-of-the-year list. But now that Shults has shown us how his particular brand of terror works in horror, it would be best for the director to lend his intimate, calculating style to another genre. It’s bound to work no matter where he lands.
Check out Randall Colburn’s monthly horror column, A Most Horrific Year.