Overview: A family escaping an apocalyptic illness is disturbed by an intruder. A24; 2017; Rated R; 91 minutes.
Who’s There?: I can be a bit of a pessimist at times. I’d rather be delightfully surprised than sadly disappointed, but sometimes it’s safer to expect the worst. But every now and then, something comes along that I can’t help but be excited about. It Comes At Night was one of those bright moments of excited cinematic anticipation. A year after his wonderful directorial debut Krisha, Trey Edward Shults took his dark bend further with an appetizing psychological horror that tells the story of a family doing whatever they can to survive regardless of the cost or the threat.
Shults has a lot to say about family, and Krisha is proof he’s not afraid to delve into the thick, inky blackness of those relationships. He alters trajectory and pumps the brakes a bit in It Comes at Night through a portrait of a family whose regimented attempt to survive an apocalyptic sickness begins to fall apart. We meet them first in protective full-face masks as they put grandpa out of his misery (a sweetly grotesque opening), lighting his body on fire in a shallow grave. Young Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) stares into the blaze, looking into the reality of what life has become. Masks removed, their faces reveal it all without having to explain how they got to where they are. It’s obvious they’ve been living this way for quite some time – they have established rules and routines, complex systems of water purification; they have learned to get by.
Make Me Believe You: Travis seems to be the last shred of joy that the family experiences. At 17, he is still learning about the world and how to interact with it. Instead of playing baseball, he bonds with his father through chores and ugly but necessary work. He learns to be afraid, aggressive, and angry. It’s not that Paul (Joel Edgerton) is a bad father, he’s just doing what he can to provide for and protect his family. Threats, trades, and deals are how he engages others, and he trusts nobody with whom he doesn’t share blood. These are stressful times, and mistakes cost people their lives.
As if their central reality isn’t hard enough, they must also contend with an intruder who threatens to pull apart the lives that they’re barely holding together. Cheerful family photos line the walls as a reminder of how things used to be, but more like Paul’s historical Roman empire paintings, the landscape is more about destruction. Unsurprisingly, the intruder first seems to bring the promise of community. But when nobody can trust anybody completely, how long can any relationship last? Paul watches Travis learn from others with an obvious pang of jealousy. They are a drain on resources, including maybe love. As long as they are in the house, the illness becomes secondary.
If You’re Lying, I’ll Kill You: Travis, along with his mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) to some degree, is the most trusting of the family, and the first time we see him laugh is at the suspicious guests. Sarah brings a welcome feminine touch to the script, balancing her emotions and regularly giving the best advice. They play house for a short time, but much more is going on under the surface. Travis is our ears and eyes, sneaking into the attic to listen to the goings-on around the house and suffering from almost prophetic dreams. These are the scariest moments of the film, but otherwise, real tension is mysteriously lacking in It Comes At Night. This is surprising, given the subject matter and Shults’ deft handling of heavy atmosphere. Paranoia should be rampant, even breathless at moments, but many of the build-up scenes lacked the sharpened edge to really get between the ribs.
Harrison is the real star of the show. His performance is hauntingly heartbreaking, quietly playing the transition from child to adult with painful accuracy. He is rarely allowed to give his opinion and use his voice. But without saying anything, he portrays the struggle of his loss of innocence and helplessness about the future. Here there is a terrifying relevance to our current landscape today, a time when young people are looking at the state of the world and fear for its future. Travis is visibly affected by the ruthlessness he has to witness, to which his parents are cold, because they have to be. He is the only truly likeable character, and he is the only person we can really trust. Any feeling that the film evokes comes for him, and it leaves the others out. Because of this, the ending feels lukewarm and uncertain. All along we’re not sure who to align with, or what to fear, but what’s the point if it all feels like treachery?
Overall: Despite a compelling performance, relevant themes, and a powerful new director, It Comes At Night somehow lacks real tension a narrative compelling enough to display it.
Featured Image: A24