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Filmmaker Trey Edward Shults seemingly came out of nowhere. After dropping out of business school and assisting on several Terrence Malick projects, Shults made his feature-length debut with 2015’s Krisha, a tense psychological drama. The film stars Shults’ actual family, most of whom are not trained actors, so there’s a degree of verisimilitude that borders on voyeurism. His follow-up, It Comes at Night, repeats many of the same themes: It also focuses on family, with the majority of the action taking place within one claustrophobic household. The film contains many tropes of the horror genre, except one major ingredient: catharsis. It Comes at Night is relentlessly bleak, to the point where you should probably consider this review a warning.
Before the title card, there is a sad, disturbing sequence that combines mercy with ritual. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Travis, a teenage boy who watches his father Paul (Joel Edgerton) bury his grandfather. The situation is even grimmer than it sounds: Paul shoots the man in the head and sets his body on fire before he’s buried. The family is still reeling from an unnamed cataclysm, and there are fewer details than survivors. There is no infrastructure, and a constant threat of some horrible sickness. Paul has fortified his home, with only one possible entrance, and Christopher Abbott plays a man, Will, who somehow breaks inside. He lasts mere seconds before Paul knocks him out, but eventually the two build a rapport. Shortly after, Paul welcomes Will’s family into his home, and there’s an uneasy alliance between the two families, and they share one roof as they fight off gnawing distrust.
Scary scenes often build up to a release. In The Thing, one of the films that clearly influences Shults, the gory death of the monster means that, for a while anyway, there is a reprieve from the tension. It Comes at Night never deigns to provide any sense of release. It is entirely build-up: The dialogue remains soft-spoken and economical, while the atmosphere drips with silence and darkness.
In fact, the film is bearable only thanks to Shults’ sense of composition, coupled with the audience’s yearning to learn more. Shults has a knack for finding beauty in the macabre—while Travis watches his grandfather’s body burn, for example, the flames reflect in his gas mask. Most of the film relies on natural light—there is no electricity, after all—and the steadfast attention to sound design and simple imagery is like a sick joke. Shults’ camera is pitiless, and each shot points to inexorable tragedy.
On top of the tension between the two families, Shults adds nightmare imagery that creates an uneasy balance between reality and symoblism. There are many nighttime sequences from Travis’ perspective: He can’t sleep, so he chats with Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough). At first it’s friendly, even flirtatious—at least until ruddy goo oozes from Kim’s mouth. Is the scene a dream? Shults keeps us guessing, and the transitions are all the more unnerving.
Another key departure from typical horror tropes is that none of the film’s characters, even Will’s toddler Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), ever makes a stupid mistake. The action—and the characters’ trust or distrust for one another—is always justified. After Paul knocks Will out, he ties him to a tree, puts a gag in his mouth, and leaves him there for days. Their communication is terse, based on mutual need, and Will doesn’t even seem particularly angry: He understands Paul’s caution. Doubt seeps into the house, followed by outright betrayal, and Shults still declines to answer plot questions. That may infuriate horror fans who are used to tidy conclusions. After the success of recent low-budget horror films like Split and Get Out, It Comes at Night is far more demanding, even brazen.
Like Krisha, this is a film that exposes Shults’ disdain for redemption. It Comes at Night systematically dismantles one institution after another, including self-determination, until all that’s left is an opportunity to wait. This is a film that is depressing, cruel and virtually humorless. The only solace—if you can call it that—is Shults’ empathy for his characters. He sees failures with clarity, filming their impasses with tension and suspense, right before they consider oblivion. If there is no hope, at least the despair won’t last too long.
It Comes At Night opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market, AMC Georgetown, and AMC Mazza Gallerie.