"It Comes At Night" Packs Existential Punch

Here comes “It Comes At Night,” a poorly titled, poorly marketed, very good film that deserves your consideration – with a few caveats. Kudos to A24 for standing behind such a meditative, morose work; for securing writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ second feature a wide release at a time of year when multiplexes are spilling over with immoderacy. The opposite of kudos, however, for billing it as a monster movie (it scarcely qualifies as horror), scaling new heights of marketing ineptitude in the process. Par exemplar: the teaser trailer includes the film’s final shot.

But what the film is is more than enough to make up for what it isn’t. Shults has hewn a small post-apocalyptic survival thriller that walks a neat line between acting showcase and experiential drama. The cast, toplined by Joel Edgerton (“Loving”) and Carmen Ejogo (“Selma”), finds and sustains a sweet spot of authenticity where it hardly registers that there’s acting going on. They play a couple named Paul and Sarah, survivalists by necessity and parents of a quietly charming teen named Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Holed up in a wooded cabin, the three make do in a barren landscape where an unidentified, highly contagious sickness has wiped out a large swath of the populace.

The pic’s opening sees the trio bid adieu to a sick family member, their hearts breaking in real time as they muster the land version of a viking’s funeral. The sequence sets a deeply somber but appropriate tone for what follows: life in a world where fear and confusion and emotional devastation are the new normal.

When an unidentified man breaks into the family’s compound in search of supplies, Shults begins to masterfully ratchet up the tension, nearly suffocating characters and moviegoers both with paranoia. Paul has no idea if he can trust this man, eventually identified as Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims to be in desperate need of water for his family. As it turns out, at least part of his story checks out, and the introduction of his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and child lends a whole new dimension to the story. To Travis’ story in particular.

Kevin Harrison Jr. is an epiphany here, adroitly imbuing Travis with a blend of normal teenage problems and the minutiae of personal issues that might accompany an apocalypse. His central performance combined with Shults’ incredibly well considered screenplay puts us in Travis’ corner early on. We never leave it, hanging on every word and glance and frustration he lives through. The rest of the cast is very good. Harrison is great.

The slow gait of the screenplay is only a hindrance so far as the pic’s lack of traditional jump scares. Its leisurely pace and general smallness is liable to be amplified in the minds of those waiting for big scares. (There are only a handful, and they’re mostly of the psychological variety.) In actuality, the film is a remarkably tight 90 minutes, wasting not one of them. If anything, it feels like there are a couple of scenes missing; scenes that would have been enthralling to see but for budget constraints or betrayal of the movie’s small scope.

Trey Edward Shults has made a very effective little thriller destined for a healthy life on streaming services, free of the expectations of big screen horror. The film is horrifying but far more in its implications that what’s on screen, a low buzz of existential terror eventually brought to a howl by an exceptionally talented cast. It might be a dirge of a film, but it’s a beautiful, textured dirge that hangs in the air long after its last note has been played. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: June 9, 2017
Studio: A24
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kevin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, disturbing images, and language)