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It Comes At Night is bleak. Unremittingly so. This is, for all intents and purposes, a waking nightmare designed to make us squirm and question the moral quandary at the centre of this grouped two-hander while appreciating the evocative atmosphere, wonderful dark imagery, and brilliant unsettling performances. Yes, it can be a film to admire more than love, which might come later, if ever you deign to watch it again, but really, once around is enough.
It gives us a world beyond breaking point, decimated by some unnamed disaster—a virus, war, chemical spill, locusts?—it doesn’t really matter, and a family shuttered from whatever horror remains. The family is Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jnr.), living in constant fear, in a house that you’d run away from if it was seen in a teen slasher movie. The brooding is punctuated by the briefest flashes of, if not enjoyable, but relieving family life. However, because of the nature of whatever is out there, there might come a time (and it does) when the toughest decisions have to be made, lest the whole family is put at risk. Everyone is way on edge.
And that’s before Christopher Abbott’s Will shows up, breaking in, causing damage, getting knocked out and tied up—interrogated by Paul in a wonderfully tense and revealing one shot take. Will is after supplies for his young family, though Paul is having none of it. Edgerton—who tends to be the MVP in every film he’s in these days, and Abbott could be seen as the masculine dimension stretched thin in a cruel world. So much of it inferred in their early conversations and confrontations. They attempt to keep normality in the frame for their family’s. And this struggle between surviving at any cost and forming bonds of community that humanity needs to thrive wrestle each other throughout.
Director Trey Edward Shults (this is only his second feature and that annoys me and impresses me) does a fine job of presenting this duality. It’s easy to read into the title that what comes at night might simply be the fear that resides within us, hiding in the darkness of our clouded minds, waiting for when we are at our weakness to strike. Shults bathes the frame in shadows and claustrophobic spaces when inside. Outside it’s about the fragment look of the woods, the camera seeming to refuse to go too far from the confines of the house.
So much of the film is left up to inferring. The red door. The woods. Time and place. An eerie kid (always got to look out for them). Motives seem to be lost in the shadows of protection and survival. To the point where you just want to scream to let out some kind of cathartic measure. It becomes a test of endurance, especially as the spiral into despair seems to be inevitable. It's tough to really empathize with the characters but at the same time, we kind of have that terrifying sensation that we would probably do all these unspeakable and harsh acts if forced to the limit.
What is to be ultimately laid at the feet of It Comes At Night? Are we simply doomed? Cursed to deal with the fallout and never be able to pick up the pieces. Are we the monsters? Our humanity ripped away from us when the strictures of society break down and we end up in a living nightmare. What does it matter if what we see is real or not, there's no escape anyway. We yearn for safety—family, home, a good bottle of whisky—but that’s where the most desperate traits of us can fester when the world is lost.