Release date: 7th July 2017/Watch the trailer here
It Comes At Night, from writer and director Trey Edward Shults, is a film that throws its audience straight in at the deep end. It opens with a family – the father, Paul (Joel Edgerton); mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo); and teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) – saying their goodbyes to Travis’ grandfather, who is visibly ill, before Paul and Travis take him into the quiet woods that surround their home, and shoot him. The audience is left with little clue as to what the man’s illness was, how he contracted it, or why shooting him was even necessary.
For the rest of its ninety minute runtime, It Comes At Night continues in much of the same way, never pausing to help its audience wade out of the depths. We learn through dialogue that a mysterious illness has plagued an unnamed city, but none of the characters know what this illness is – only that its symptoms develop rapidly and it’s highly contagious. Eventually, Paul, Sarah and Travis take in another family – Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), who come into their lives through dubious circumstances after they catch Will breaking into their house one night in a desperate search for water.
It Comes At Night has run into a lot of criticism for not being the standard horror movie that its advertising suggested, and while it’s certainly not a horror – it falls more closely within the psychological thriller genre – many elements of it are undoubtedly horrifying. Not since The Witch (which, like It Comes At Night, was also distributed by A24, an independent company which have made quite a name for themselves recently with films such as Moonlight and Ex Machina) has a film radiated such pure, unrelenting dread.
But while there is much to praise about It Comes At Night – it’s an impeccably crafted film, with beautiful cinematography that can turn the most idyllic location into something threatening and incredibly well-acted, multifaceted characters – the lasting impression is an unpleasant one. This is, of course, in part due to the exhaustion of spending ninety minutes clenching your teeth, waiting for something awful to happen, and in part because nothing much really does happen: there is a huge amount of build-up with very little pay-off.
Obviously, there are plenty of films where a slow-burn feel and a certain level of ambiguity work well – and in many ways, It Comes At Night is one of those films. But there’s almost too much ambiguity here: there are too many questions that are raised and never even come close to being answered, least of all the mystery of what has happened to the outside world and the cause of this seemingly terrible disease. You’ll be left with plenty of your own theories, but it’s frustrating that theories is all they’ll ever be.
Even so, for fans of the genre there’s plenty to admire here. You may leave the cinema cursing its name, but for ninety minutes you’re all but guaranteed to be gripped; It Comes At Night manages to command attention masterfully for such a largely slow and quiet film. If only Shults had chosen to tie up some of the many loose ends, then this could have become a near-perfect genre staple – but as it stands, we don’t even know what it actually is that comes at night.