It Comes at Night (A24, R)

On the plus side, It Comes at Night is technically accomplished.

It Comes at Night is the second film of the early summer, after The Wall, that seems to have been developed as the answer to the intellectual challenge of making a feature film using the most minimal means possible. Both are technically accomplished films that deserve to find an audience, but neither really feels like a film that had to be made.

The first thing we see in It Comes at Night is an old man, obviously very ill with some horrible disease, being shot and his corpse burned by several people wearing respirators and heavy rubber gloves. The executioner is Paul (Joel Edgerton), head of a household also including his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) They’re hunkered down in a large, isolated house in the woods, hoping to avoid being infected by the unnamed plague that killed the old man. To that end, they’ve boarded up the windows in their house and installed a sort of airlock system involving two sets of doors, so that if someone or something breaks through the first, it will be trapped in a small chamber rather than being able to enter the main house directly. They are also heavily armed and ready to shoot anything that seems to be threatening their survival.

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults is not interested in world building, so we never get much backstory for any of the characters, nor do we learn much about the plague or the general state of the world. Shults never delineates exactly what resources this family does and doesn’t have, but for the near future they seem to have the basic necessities that one might take on a camping trip, right down to the lanterns they use for lighting at night. They eat only two meals a day in order to ration their food, but appear to have plenty of water, clothing, and a working truck with gas in the tank.

Then one night someone breaks through the outer door. It turns out to be Will (Christopher Abbott), a young man who claims he thought the house was deserted, and that he’s only looking for water for his family. He’s will to trade for it (his family has a supply of food and livestock), but the impossibility of transporting enough water to keep a family going for any length of time has apparently not occurred to either him or Paul.

Nonetheless, the two families decide to join forces, so Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) join Paul and his family in the house. Paul explains the rules by which they live, and at first the two families seem to be getting on well, but in such a tense situation conflict is almost inevitable. There are hints that the story might go in unexpected directions, perhaps exploring what it’s like to be a maturing teenager, with all the desires and curiosities that go with that time of life, in the middle of an apparent apocalypse, but none of those possibilities are ever really paid off. Shults avoids cheap jump scares, which is admirable, but never really comes up with anything to replace them.

On the plus side, It Comes at Night is technically accomplished—in fact it looks exactly like a film that made the most of a small budget—and the acting is good within the limitations of the roles. Edgerton gets the most screen time, and while I did not totally buy his character, the fault lay more in the writing than in his performance. Abbott has a tendency to broad exaggeration, but Ejogo and Keough make a strong impressions in more limited roles, while the real standout is Harrison Jr. In fact, this could easily have been Travis’ movie, and it’s a shame that Shults didn’t develop his character more thoroughly.

Superb sound design by Kris Fenske does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating tension and indicating where the next threat might lie. Cinematography by Drew Daniels, who also shot Shults’ debut feature Krisha, exploits all the standard horror tropes—point-of-view dolly shots down dark hallways, slow creep-ins, low-light shots where you can’t see any more than, presumably, the characters can—supplemented with lots of tightly framed shots that emphasize the isolation of each individual. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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