As he did in the stunner Krisha, Trey Edward Shults confines most of the action in his sophomore feature to the interiors of a private home. But in It Comes at Night, that house is not just a cauldron of domestic tensions, but a fortress against a dangerous world. Set in an unspecified very-near future, when a mysterious plague has apparently decimated the population, the story of a family defending itself against whatever’s out there grabs you by the throat from its first, wrenching moments and doesn’t let go.
The film confirms that Shults, working again with DP Drew Daniels, has a sure and fluent grasp of cinematic storytelling, his stripped-down narrative pulsing with dread and emotion. An outstanding ensemble gives life to every fraught word and anxious silence of the apocalyptic nightmare, with especially powerful performances from Joel Edgerton, as a family’s hyperalert patriarch, and Kelvin Harrison Jr., as the son who senses the limits of his family’s stand against disaster.
Seventeen and immersed in a struggle against death before he’s had a chance to live, the quietly watchful Travis (Harrison) is devastated by the killing that opens the film, an act of self-preservation as much as a mercy killing. After words of loving farewell from Travis’ mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) — words muffled by the gas mask she’s wearing — his grandfather (David Pendleton), unable to speak, struggling to breathe and bearing the telltale lesions of the fatal sickness, is carted out to the woods by Paul (Edgerton), who shoots him and promptly incinerates his body.
Having plunged the viewer directly into the grip of crisis, Shults tightens the vise while expanding the number of characters. In a tense standoff that begins with the surreal edge of one of Travis’ chronic nightmares, the rural stronghold is invaded by Will (Christopher Abbott), who says he’s traveled 50 miles in search of water for his family. The ever-vigilant Paul’s effort to determine whether Will is lying briefly puts the two men on the road and demonstrates through a brutal, grippingly filmed encounter that there are other survivors in the vicinity. Compelled by self-interest more than compassion, Sarah convinces Paul that Will, Kim (Riley Keough) and their very young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) — not to mention their chickens and goats — should move in with them. Unless they join forces with the other family, she insists, they’ll be sitting ducks, targeted for their house and their water supply.
However carefully Paul articulates his and Sarah’s rules and expectations, the arrival of this younger, less-inhibited family upends the domestic order they’ve constructed to ward off madness and despair. For Travis, their arrival is a welcome vision of possibility. Since the death of the teen’s grandfather, his elderly dog, Stanley (played by Mikey), has been his only confidant in the household. The newcomers, Kim in particular, awaken and complicate his unexpressed adolescent longings. Eavesdropping on them, he finds a welcome spark of joy, but the things he sees and overhears eventually set off a decisive showdown — one that Shults and Daniels introduce with a remarkable pairing of close-ups across a tense kitchen table: on one side the sweet-faced, barely articulate Andrew, on the other, the skeptical Paul.
The mistrust that infects all the adults, as surely as the nameless sickness, grieves Travis, who’s at the center of it all, whether he’s rushing out into the woods after Stanley or silently watching from a corner of a dark room. With his riveting performance, Harrison wordlessly conveys how the boy is drawn to the instinctive, physical Will and repelled by his history-teacher father — a natural phase of his development that’s amplified by Paul’s edicts and mercy killings in their unspeakable circumstances.
Working in upstate New York, Texas native Shults gives the rural setting a heart-pounding intensity. Daniels’ camera roves over a winding dirt road with the same foreboding that it conjures within the rustic house where most of the action unfolds. There’s a dreamlike, terrifying beauty to the cramped, lantern-lit nighttime interiors designed by Karen Murphy: the empty attic where Travis can listen unseen, the long nightmare of a corridor, the framed Brueghel (depicting a plague), the omen of a heavy red door. Brian McOmber’s tormented heartbeat of a score heightens the horror every step of the way.
With his fine cast and his gracefully restrained screenplay, Shults makes horror recognizable. The “It” of his title is no less a mystery at film’s end than when the story opens with the sound of an old man’s labored breath. But in the movie’s dark rooms, the director illuminates tough questions: What does it mean to be a “good person,” as Will calls Paul during their first, wary conversation? What does it mean to protect your family at all costs, and when does survival become meaningless?
Production company: Animal Kingdom
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Griffin Robert Faulkner, David Pendleton
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults
Producers: David Kaplan, Andrea Roa
Executive producer: Joel Edgerton
Director of photography: Drew Daniels
Production designer: Karen Murphy
Costume designer: Meghan Kasperlik
Editors: Trey Edward Shults, Matthew Hannam
Composer: Brian McOmber
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Rated R, 97 minutes