Horror movies are never really about the terror they put on display. Even when monster movies are marketed and sold around a creature, they’re often just using those monsters as stand-ins. Instead, horror is a way to address larger societal concerns and fears, whether it’s the critique of white privilege in Jordan Peele’s Get Out or the anxieties of modern sexuality in It Follows.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) embraces that schism wholeheartedly with his second film, It Comes At Night. The film’s creepy marketing campaign suggests it’s about a monster hiding behind a mysterious red door, or a survival movie about a plague that infects a family. Elements of both hooks are present, but those are ultimately reductive takes, ways of distilling a complex film simmering with ideas into something more simple and palatable.
Instead, It Comes At Night approaches horror as a framework, using it to construct a psychological drama about family, violence, and the pain of adolescence. It’s a meticulous piece of filmmaking, so honed and refined in execution that it becomes nearly unbearable at times. (Note: that’s a good thing.) But for a film that’s so intent on focusing on ideas rather than cheap scare tactics, it ultimately feels slightly hollow. It’s beautiful and harrowing, and undoubtedly an accomplishment, but it ultimately feels like Shults can’t decide what he wants to say.
It Comes At Night is set in some undetermined near-future. A plague has apparently wiped out vast swaths of humanity, leaving Paul (Joel Edgerton, sporting his best Kurt Russell beard) to defend his family — wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) — in their house in the woods. The film opens with Paul killing his father-in-law, who’s suffering from the mysterious illness, before unceremoniously dumping the body into a grave and setting it on fire.
As Paul and Travis watch the body burn, both hiding behind the gas masks they wear for protection, it’s an opening sign that Shults doesn’t plan to pull any narrative punches. His film is violent and matter-of-fact, with little room for luxuries like sympathy and regret.
The problem is, Travis isn’t suited for this environment. He’s an artist who feels closer to his dog than to his father. When a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the family’s home, it sets off a chain of events that gives Travis a glimpse at a life beyond what he’s known. Paul and Sarah decide two families are better than one, so Will moves into their home along with his wife, Sarah (The Girlfriend Experience’s Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). For a time, the makeshift arrangement actually works — but eventually paranoia, fear, and doubt set in, with disastrous results.
The premise of It Comes At Night doesn’t offer anything truly new. The post-apocalyptic survival tale, where people learn how society breaks down without the comforts of structure, is practically a subgenre in its own right at this point. At first, that makes it difficult to fully embrace Shults’ film — what initially seems like a big-screen version of The Walking Dead can only spark so much enthusiasm — but that grim, uncompromising brutality sucks the air out of the theater and makes It Comes At Night stand apart from its brethren. That, and the writer-director’s impeccable style as a filmmaker.
My colleague Tasha Robinson recently had a fascinating conversation with Shults about his film grammar and visual choices, and his insights reveal why, on a technical level, It Comes At Night is a wonder. Cinematographer Drew Daniels turns traditional horror visuals — Kevin waking up from a nightmare and walking down a darkened hallway, for example — into evocative moments that linger in the mind long after the film ends. The movie sometimes feels like a Baroque painting come to life. Daniels’ use of light directs the eye in constantly surprising ways, while creating an inescapable sense of dread. Brian McOmber’s score is equally evocative, a constantly building cacophony of noise and chaos that amplifies the ever-escalating on-screen conflicts.
The irony is that for a film so full of tension, It Comes At Night is never really scary. The film has a number of cheap jump scares and reveals, but they’re all part of Travis’ ongoing nightmares. At first, when it seems the film could go anywhere, the moments are alive and full of dreadful possibility. Once it becomes clear how the film is using those dreams — they’re opportunities to add spooky exclamation points to the all-too-human conflict in the waking world — they lose a significant part of their power. Shults is thoughtful, however, and he does pay off even that loss in efficacy — but it underscores a core problem with It Comes At Night. Just because a film is well-intentioned doesn’t necessarily mean it’s effective.
The film flirts with a number of fascinating ideas and themes. Travis is dominated by his overbearing father, who seems so obsessed with protecting his family that he doesn’t realize he’s emasculating his son at every turn. On the flip side, Travis is a 17-year-old, on the brink of manhood, with nobody his age to relate to, particularly not someone of the opposite sex. That comes to the forefront when he meets Kim. These dynamics present alternative, unusual takes on the typical post-apocalyptic scenario, and there’s rich material to mine there, particularly thanks to Kelvin Harrison, Jr.’s quiet, sensitive performance. But these ultimately end up feeling like situational dynamics rather than true, coherent themes. They’re there for a moment, then abandoned.
Shults has said this is a personal film, inspired by his father’s death. It’s clear he took great care in crafting It Comes At Night, and that he’s using the film to tackle many personal topics as both a writer and a director. Unfortunately, the movie never truly articulates any single idea in any satisfying way — other than a half-defeated, “Welp, everything sucks.” It’s a wonderfully crafted piece of filmmaking that’s nearly sensual in its aesthetic considerations, but as a meaningful piece of storytelling, it never fully delivers.
To be clear, films don’t have to have some big-picture takeaway, and there’s as much power in movies that function as sheer audio-visual experiences as there is in any other kind of production. The problem with It Comes At Night is that Shults is so clearly trying to reach for more. It’s a horror film that refuses to be bound by its own genre conventions. It’s a drama that wants to tackle ideas of masculinity, violence, and the relationships between fathers and sons. It’s a mesmerizing arthouse film with no qualms about embracing jump scares and slasher-movie tropes. But more than anything else, it’s an ambitious movie — a sophomore statement from a filmmaker just beginning to grow into his powers. It’s worth celebrating in that regard alone, even when it doesn’t hit the notes it’s reaching for.