It makes sense, I suppose, that an object as paranoid and claustrophobic as It Comes At Night feels longer than its 91 minute runtime. Then again, did anyone else feel they’d spent a full two hours watching it? It’s an exhausting endeavor, as horrifically inevitable in its finale as any tragedy, perhaps going farther in some instances than expected yet ending pretty abruptly at a moment of crisis for the few survivors. I admire how the film immediately throws you into the post-apocalyptic setting and worldview of it characters, setting it up quickly through filmmaking technique and the lived-in terror of central family Paul, Sarah, and their son Travis. Opening with the killing and cremation of Sarah’s infected father, the sheer efficiency of their removal of this dying man suggests plenty of questions on how they’ve gotten this routine so down pat – is it practice or other real world experiences? – and introduces us perfectly to these characters. Paul and Sarah are harder and less trusting of the world than their son, though they’re still a kind of loving nuclear family unit. Paul’s word is still final, though depending on the graveness of the situation he’s happy to hear contributions from the family. Travis is more visibly bothered by the ruthlessness his parents have taken up, though this is mainly manifest in increasingly surreal nightmares. These, thankfully, are the films only real forays into jump scares, and as effective as they are they ultimately feel cheap and somewhat atonal next to the slow burn psychological study on paranoia that Trey Edward Shults had been making so successfully in so many other moments. All the scenes of the primary family interacting with the outsiders is uncomfortably tense and well crafted, either escalating a situation, acting as a release valve, muddying a previous narrative, trying to keep a lid on something everyone knows is going to boil over.
The actors fill it out fine, etching out their roles memorably, though perhaps too much of the film is privileged to relative newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Travis, especially since you can feel how limited all the roles outside of the son and his domineering, paranoid father are. Carmen Ejogo feels palpably limited as Sarah compared to the rest of the cast, especially since she has almost nothing to do once second couple Will and Kim are introduced except confer with her husband and stare askance at the rest of the cast. It’s genuinely unclear between this and Alien: Covenant – at least giving her more to do in her scenes and has a better reason to sideline her narrative so earIy – which film gives her less to do this summer. I admired the sincerity that Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough use to portray new couple Will and Kate, removing them as objects of outright distrust through a kind of decency sorely absent from Travis’ life. This ultimately makes the moments where they do have to fight for their lives sadder and seemingly more upsetting than the ones where Paul and Sarah do, the difference between cornered animals and pragmatic survivalists. Even their son has a few lines, a few close-ups, a little narrative import.
That said, attempting to write about the film has reminded me more of what the film doesn’t offer than what it does. As impressively claustrophobic as the whole thing felt, Shults crafts a lot of different tensions without making them cohere in any interesting way. Even the lack of coherence is less interesting than it might be, but instead the different ways the film makes us anxious grate against each other without assisting the overall picture. It’s not that any one scare isn’t affecting, but it’s hard to find the unifying umbrella to put the jump scares, the hallucinogenic dream sequences, the faux-casual anxiety, the genuinely casual anxiety, fear of the unknown, and outright horror elements underneath. The variety is admirable, but it’s hard to reckon with the film’s tonal shifting once everything starts feeling like vignettes on the same kind of scenario. It Comes at Nightlacks the kind of singular, rigid, claustrophobic tone that made horror films like It Follows or even chamber dramas like Cries and Whispers such terrifying yet gripping sits, ultimately worth their payoffs as we spent comparable amounts of time in front of them. It also helps that both films have stronger presentations of its characters, not exactly acting showcases or character studies but certainly give the space for great acting to arise out of their ecosystems, letting characters breathe as long as they were alive and let their personalities shine through thorny interactions and uncomfortable decision-making.
Granted, the survivors of this film’s post-apocalyptic scenario already come with plenty of steel in their spines, and the crux of the piece is as much about character relationships more than the characters, but the actors are hemmed in by how easy the trajectory of the film is to chart out. As soon as the new couple arrive all we can do is wait to see what they do wrong that blows it all to hell, not just because we know what kind of film we’re watching but because we never for a second consider that Paul, Sarah, or Travis will be the catalysts for any fuckery. The way the group-splitting decision occurs leaves no questions of loyalty or blame, dividing the expecting parties up perfectly without leaving any questions to how this miniature turf war will ultimately be settled. Everything feels like it matters, but once the film finished I was hard pressed to think of what I got out of it. The setting is fairly specific, and I didn’t mind the way that whatever infection these characters were so afraid of was mostly referred to like a Voldemort-ish unspoken evil. But at certain moments, when the film suggests something else these characters are on guard for, it trips itself up, suggesting an actual creature that Travis draws, or in the return of one character with a terrible gash in their belly. Is this an airborne virus? Some horrific nocturnal demons? The titular “It” points to the virus, a home invader, and a dog, all plausibly so, but the lack of definition around what “it” is might be a benefit if the film wasn’t gesturing towards a living, breathing thing fulfilling the role of “it” that would attack the central families.
The characters, too, are barely even defined enough beyond Paul to be considered types, and the abruptness of the last minute suggests an even more torturous but far more fascinating five minutes, or even a better 90 minute feature, as the two doomed survivors sit frozen at the kitchen table, not just reckoning with the recent past but their bleak futures. Everyone in the house that morning had died at their hands, and all that is left to determine is how they will take care of each other, in every sense of the phrase. The individual contributions of the actors, good as they are, frankly make you wish they had more to do than what they’re given. I talked earlier about how sidelined Ejogo is, but it’s not as though Keough, Abbott, or their kid are given radically more material than she does, their moments just come later in the script. The whole cast seems ready for richer characters to take, and it would’ve served everyone better to give some of the perspective that Travis got to the other, non-Paul characters. Harrison and Edgerton do fine work, but I can’t find much to really say about them. Whatever the actors add to their performances, they don’t have the space to deepen them in any surprising way.
Ultimately, I’m not quite sure what to take away from It Comes at Night. The picture would’ve benefitted tremendously from a more cohered range of tones, more room for its characters to breathe, perhaps for the audience to breathe too, and an ending that allowed the survivors room to explore the ramifications of their actions in their final moments. I enjoyed the film plenty while I was sitting in front of it, but for the life of me I’m not sure what ideas I’m supposed to take away from this. The inherent insustainability of human bonds in life-or-death scenarios? It surely can’t be about the consequences of distrust and paranoia, since Paul and Sarah are pretty much right all the time. It can’t be a study on the horrific lengths one goes to to survive since. Well. Anyways. I’d say the idea here seems muddy but I’m not quite sure what it is, to be quite honest. When the film ended, most of our theater let pretty quickly. Ahead of me and Jack was a pair of women, one of whom turned to the rest of theater asking “That was it?” and I agreed with her 100%. I also agreed with Jack about enjoying the oppressiveness of the film’s style, but we spent about equal time discussing the trailer for the Murder on the Orient Express remake, and Kenneth Branagh’s awful mustache. Is it hard to get to the center of It Come at Night because the center is more elusive than I’m giving it credit for, or because it’s as insubstantial as I think it is? I don’t plan on rewatching it to find out, and this has for sure made the idea of seeing Shults’ first feature Krisha a much more dubious prospect. I’m excited by the idea of a good film by somehow who seems so interested working with claustrophobia and tonally oppressive projects, and if this feature is the proper stepping stone for him to make that film, I’ll be happy. But I can’t quite find the value of this project. It scares, sure, but it doesn’t last, and there’s no meat to it. It Comes at Night evaporates far quicker than I expected, lingering only for what it could have been, while what it ultimately is feels as alarmingly opaque as its characters, and as empty as their home.