The following review contains spoilers for It Comes at Night.
If you’ve been on the internet in recent months, you’re likely aware of the hate that It Comes at Night has received from horror fans. Attaining a ‘D’ CinemaScore from audiences who caught the film in theaters, Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore effort has continued to divide viewers within the horror community- many of which don’t consider it to even be a horror film. Having finally seen the film for myself, I cannot fathom the hatred.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night takes place in a world that has been ravaged by a contagious and deadly disease. A post-apocalyptic story told on an intimate, personal scale, the film follows a family of three- Paul, Sarah, and their son Travis- who occupy a home deep in the woods, distanced from civilization. Having recently laid his grandfather to rest and suffering from disturbing nightmares, Travis is at odds with the quiet life of his family and the constant paranoia, fear, alertness and precaution in which they’re forced to abide by.
Travis’ father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), is especially cautious- going above and beyond to ensure the safety of his wife and son. Though the routine lifestyle often feels uneventful, it’s proven necessary when an intruder (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home late one evening. Paul disarms and knocks the man unconscious, tying him to a tree the next day so that he may interrogate him. The man reveals his name, Will, and swears that he only broke into their home because it appeared abandoned and that he intended to find water and supplies for his wife and son. Paul is reluctant to believe Will, but after discussing the matter with Sarah and Travis, decides to find his family and welcome them into their home.
Initially, the families mesh well together- all of them pulling their weight to maintain a prosperous lifestyle with each other. As the film progresses, however, so does the escalating sense of tense paranoia and dread. Viewers never get the sense that these two families trust each other, despite how well they get along. The contrast and comparison between them is compelling and carries much of the weight in the eventual culmination of that dread.
Whereas Paul and his family are hardened, prepared, and pessimistic about the state of the world, Will, his wife, and their young son represent a hopeful future, and the loving family that Paul, Sarah, and Travis used to be. Travis connects with their sense of optimism and longs to feel anything other than the darkness that’s been cast upon him. As that darkness begins to win even him over, though, the paranoia pits both families against each other in a riveting, devastating finale.
It Comes at Night showcases the ugliness of the world. People are so genuinely terrible to each other that, at times, it seems the only way to survive is to reserve your trust and take no chances. That paranoia is front and center throughout this film, and while that makes for a more subtle exploration of terror, it’s nevertheless horrifying.
Shults directs in a way that creeps into your mind like a bad dream, something that’s helped tremendously by the alternately gorgeous and unnerving cinematography. At once, everything feels both familiar and disorienting- and before you know it, you’re in the middle of a nightmare. He pulls such a suffocating amount of dread and mounting tension from the scenario that the horrifying disease at the heart of the film becomes an afterthought. This is subliminal terror at its very best.
Each actor turns in a strong performance, especially Joel Edgerton as Paul and Riley Keough as Kim, Will’s wife. These two characters fall on opposite ends of the spectrum for Travis; Paul representing the life he has and Kim representing the life he longs for. Edgerton’s performance displays a grizzled, straightforward and hardened demeanor in the place of the kind, caring man he once was, whereas Keough showcases a warmth and nurturing nature in contrast to the cold, cruel world.
Truthfully, it’s baffling to me that fans are chastising It Comes at Night to such an extreme degree. While the film was unarguably mismarketed as straightforward horror, there’s no denying the incredible, nuanced psychological horror film we’ve actually been treated to. Shults’ film is a near masterpiece, and though it continues to be divisive, time will remember it as such.