It Comes at Night
Hell is other people in this intimate, intense and deeply unsettling thriller.
When It Comes at Night begins with a man gripped by an infection, viewers are primed to expect a particular type of horror film. Something frightening is clearly in the air, which only becomes more apparent after his spluttering culminates in a wheelbarrow ride towards a fiery end. Death and devastation lurk quietly in this sparse post-apocalyptic realm, and those who have managed to survive trust no one. It's dystopian thriller 101, leaving audiences waiting for zombies or monsters to rear their ugly heads. What they'll find instead is Jean-Paul Sartre's famous phrase brought to life on screen: hell is other people.
That observation might seem obvious, but writer-director Trey Edward Shults isn't done toying with common existential worries. Playing on our collective fear of the unknown, he ramps up the atmosphere of suspicion and unease by purposely leaving the details of the film's catastrophic catalyst to the imagination. Whatever it was that sparked disaster isn't nearly as important as how those who remain deal with the fallout — and yet viewers can't help but wonder. It's a smart move, with Shults not only focusing attention on the tense interactions that follow, but mirroring the characters' uncertainty about each other.
Here, stoic father Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and dog Stanley hole up in their boarded-up house in the woods with canned food for sustenance and weapons at the ready. Then Will (Christopher Abbott) somehow stumbles through their locked door in the middle of the night, claiming to be looking for shelter for his own wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).
It's telling that Shults' first film, the family reunion drama Krisha, also brought a group of people together and then revealed their true nature through conflict. It should go without saying that forcing strangers into close quarters in a traumatic situation rarely leads to a happy outcome, so the movie doesn't say it. Rather it shows it — terse, anxious and unsettling. Cue performances (some brooding, some itching with physicality) that demonstrate just how people bristle up against each other in times of great stress.
Accordingly, jumps and bumps aren't anywhere near as terrifying as furtive looks, overheard whispers and what someone else might be plotting behind closed doors. With claustrophobic cinematography and an ominous score, It Comes at Night seethes with intimacy — not of the warm and friendly variety, but foreboding, unnerving and ruthless. Paranoid and uncomfortable, the characters squirm, yearn and threaten to turn on one another. Yet even that's not the most terrifying thing about what Shults has crafted. Instead, as the film lingers in dark hallways and thuds with nervous heartbeats, it's the fact that he has managed to taunt his viewers into feeling the exact same way.