BY BROOKE CORSO
“It Comes At Night,” directed by Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha”), begins and ends with shots of people painfully struggling to perform life’s basic function: breathing. They breathe in and out with marked difficulty and concentration, as if it is all they have left. In one instance, it precedes a swift, harsh but orderly demise; in the other, it follows a sequence of disorder and eventual desolation. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults features breathing as the winds of the interior storm swirling around our characters inside their rambling house in the woods, filling their ears with the deafening quiet and echoing the destructive presence floating through the woods outside. This isn’t so much a horror film about monsters as it is a psychological thriller about isolation, the choices made for survival, and the struggle to remain rational against an unseen, enigmatic force. Combining the steady, unnerving cadence of Poe with the haunting camerawork and score of some nightmarish Kubrick-Lynch amalgam, Shults silences the horror haters waiting for the jump scares by turning commonplace shadows into black voids and normal biological processes into potentially deadly interactions.
Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family have been in the woods a long time after a mysterious epidemic has ravaged the country. He and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have honed their survival down to an orderly routine of food and water preparation, and security drills are executed down to the smallest detail. We don’t know what the disease, but it is some kind of infectious plague judging from the buboes and bloody pustules on the skin of Sarah’s father, Bud. They can’t wait for Bud to die; he is quickly transferred from his bed to a wheelbarrow, taken to a shallow grave under the trees, shot in the head, and incinerated. Then, life resumes its adapted order.
Paul’s family wear air masks while around the infected Bud and while outside, so the threat is figured to be airborne. Other than that, we don’t know about its origin, how long it has been an epidemic, or what is going on in the world outside the woods. Bud had a dog, Stanley, which is now cared for by Travis, and they never let the dog roam off its leash, as apparently animals can also be infected. Is it a fungus transmitted by an oily liquid like urushiol, which can rub off of plants onto animal fur? Is it spread by fleas, necessitating the burning of the bodies? Is it passed through touch, as Paul constantly checks fingers and hands? We never find out, which is as frustrating for us as it is for the family.
The windows and doors of their two-story ranch house are carefully boarded with sheets of plywood, and the only entrance and exit is through the inner and outer doors of the rear mud room. The mudroom is covered in sheets of plastic: do they slaughter and/or dress meat there to cut down on fleas? Vegetables are grown in the attic rather than an outdoor garden: are they worried about soil contamination? Sarah has devised a water purification system to utilize the well water: has the disease spread to the water table? All these little clues have us guessing as to how to analyze a shadow that keeps changing shape with the movement of the sun.
Paul preaches about the importance of family as an incubator of trust and devotion, but Sarah is unnerved after her father’s demise and Travis is antagonizing the boundary between adolescence and young adulthood. Either his parents are too stressed to notice this or Travis is keeping it hidden, but the twitch of his jaw and his inability to sleep indicate a simmering pressure that he strives to control. When a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the rear of the house and pleads for help for his wife and young son, Sarah convinces Paul to accept the family into the house, even though this horror trope is always a bad idea. Will is shifty from the start — that broken-down car excuse was flimsy — as is his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), but maybe it is just nerves and trauma from the outbreak. Should any former behavior be construed as normal any more?
Shults favors the two-shot in connecting the two families with and against each other. Whether it’s Paul and Sarah at the dinner table or Paul and Will drinking at his desk, we watch one character’s reactions almost more meticulously than the other’s actions. How effectively will Paul assert his presence as alpha male? How ordered is his life and more importantly, why is it ordered so? The wall hangings in the long hallway leading to the mud room — they seem deliberately placed. The creepy painting of plague victims resembling Pieter Breguel’s The Fight Between Carnival and Lent in Travis’s bedroom is oddly hung. Is this a home or a house Paul’s family arrived at sometime after the outbreak? For all their struggles to reflect love and unity and trust, as the film progresses the house becomes a more vivid simulacrum of domesticity as the personas of its inhabitants blur and become grotesque.
Who is the Red Death who has infiltrated the walled-in castle? As lies are exposed and characters use gaslighting to distort reality and truth, the layers of distrust and suspicion compound and the pressure builds within the house as the phantoms outside increase. Travis seems to be floating in a dream, and due to his insomnia we aren’t sure what he is seeing and hearing is actually happening or whether he is cognizant of his actions. Compound this with Brian McOmber’s oppressive, pulsating score and Drew Daniel’s deceptively balanced camerawork, and the scariest part of the film is our own distrust of the proactive characters and inability to sympathize with the reactive ones. We want to feel for someone but we can’t trust anyone, and so our suspension of disbelief is built upon a rapidly crumbling floor. Even more disturbing, the answers seem to lie within the silence, swirling around the lungs and screaming as the blood rushes through the ears.
“It Comes At Night” (2017)
STARRING Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner, David Pendleton
DIRECTOR Trey Edward Shults
MPAA RATING R