REVIEW: It Comes at Night

11 06 2017

In his stunning debut feature, “Krisha,” writer/director Trey Edward Shults wowed right out of the gate by showcasing an impressive mastery of emotional ranges in the service of depicting the turbulent mental state of the eponymous character. His follow-up, “It Comes at Night,” takes a more restrained approach. Shults sticks mostly to the tense dread of the taut thriller with the occasional hallucinatory jolt of horror.

It’s hard to deny the impressive grasp of film technique Shults wields. Yet it’s also easy to wish he had a greater narrative, world or characters in which to invest the techniques.

“It Comes at Night” operates from a more contemporary update of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous maxim: the apocalypse is other people. In an abandoned wooden shack, well-armed patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton) defends his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from a never identified force that seems to turn humans into zombies. All that separates them from the outside world is a single, padlocked blood red door. That’s not the point, nor does that seem to be the “it” to which the title refers.

More than anything, “it” seems to be the fear of others – specifically, the young couple Will and Kim (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) with a small child who stumble upon their house by chance. They seek food and shelter, which Paul reluctantly and provisionally agrees to provide. Suspicion under these circumstances is natural, of course, but the host family – Paul especially – treats their every move with skepticism.

Perhaps these attitudes would make more sense if the characters were better defined –  not necessarily with flashbacks, but at least with hints of the past traumas that formed them – or the world were more fully fleshed out. What, for example, would lead Paul to shoot a man by the side of the road at will without stopping to gather any information from him? Shults opts for omnipresent ambiguity, which leaves us no foothold but the film’s ideology.

That worldview is a brutally nihilistic one, a reduction of all conflict in life to us vs. them. It’s total warfare in “It Comes at Night,” where personal survival means the enemy must face annihilation. I am open to considering viewpoints different from my own, yet the degree to which Shults condones these choices – and, dare I even say, exonerates them in the chilling final shot – left me feeling quite uneasy. Shults’ vague sketches of everything within the film make his cynicism feel unearned. This might be the best Steve Bannon production he didn’t finance. C+