Will the apocalypse come when a plague hits, or aliens attack, or when climate change ravages the planet? Or will humanity become so divided and fearful of one another that we gradually kill ourselves?
The monsters in the unusual indie horror film It Comes at Night all live under one roof. It’s a moody, atmospheric, evocative thriller about how mistrust has the power to make everyone sick.
The only image of the end of the world in Trey Edward Shults’s film is on a wall in Paul’s (Joel Edgerton) cavernous cabin in the woods. A Renaissance painting depicts Biblical fire and brimstone, but the vast forest surrounding their home only contains endless mystery. While outside, the family dog barks and chases after nothing in particular except the craggily branches masking whatever horrors we simply assume are out there.
Paul lives with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and he’s just made the hard choice of putting Sarah’s father out of his misery. Sarah’s father has grown sick, his eyes turned into dark black pools forming an intense blank stare, and with a yellowish bruise on his cheek. Paul shoots him without remorse and cremates him in a pit outside the house, the black billowing smoke creating an ominous beacon.
They suspect that the smoke attracted an intruder into their home, Will (Christopher Abbott). He claims he’s travelled 50 miles looking for resources and thought the house was abandoned, but Paul ties him up to a tree with a bag over his head before he’s willing to even hear his story. “Trust” is a rarity in this society.
Edgerton’s performance is so low-key brash, but not without genuine fear in his eyes. Another actor would merely be a gruff action hero. With Edgerton, you slowly begin to doubt whether his shoot first, ask questions later approach is really in the best interest of his family. He leaves Paul outside to die, but nothing comes. And when he agrees to finally help Will and his own family, Paul is too quick to assume during a sudden ambush that Will has led him to a trap.
Will’s family, including his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) quickly earn their keep in Paul’s home, and yet the trust between families is never fully there. Travis has a habit of sneaking up to the attic to spy on his parents and the house’s new tenants, and he begins fantasizing about Kim with grizzly results.
Shults is building towards the growing rift between these families, not the truth behind the apocalypse. And the fear of what’s outside their walls is so great that they’re completely corrupted before long. But unlike their dog, they can’t see the forest for the trees.
Shults isn’t getting political with It Comes at Night, but the polarized nature of the characters and the lack of an adherence to traditional genre tropes suggest that It Comes at Night is more parable for a divided country than a cabin in the woods horror story. Shults conveys that agitation through rapid cross cutting and gothic production design inside the cabin that evokes “The Night of the Hunter.” In this rising new golden age of indie horror, anxiety, dread and madness are the name of the game above jump scares or gore. “It Comes at Night” has all three in spades.
3 ½ stars