A running gag in the Robert Altman film The Player revolves around movies that are pitched as “X meets Y”, a commentary on the often-absurd reductionism of studio filmmaking. In that same film, the fictional production within its narrative is described as having no stars, no second act, and no Hollywood ending. All of that might also be used to describe the “horror” film It Comes At Night, which comes off as The Witch meets 10 Cloverfield Lane, with one star, no second act, and no real ending at all.
WARNING! THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!
The time is presumably the very near future. The setting is…somewhere. A mysterious bubonic plague-like disease has swept across civilization, leading Paul (Joel Edgerton) to take his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a remote home in the wilderness for safety. When fellow survivor Will (Christoper Abbot) breaks into the cabin, looking for food for his starving wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son, Paul reluctantly agrees to shelter the family in order to pool resources and defense. It doesn’t take long, however, for the whole arrangement to go awry as both families start to be consumed with paranoia and distrust.
The second feature film from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, after the family drama Krisha, starts out promisingly enough. The opening scenes, where Paul and his family must mercy-kill Sarah’s plague-stricken father, are stark and foreboding. The first encounter between Paul and Will is fraught with organic tension and a heightened, fight-or-flight energy. We’re never told what happened to cause the situation Paul’s family is in, or what may or may not have happened in the outside world, and that ambiguity helps to ramp up the fear and dread that great horror films are built on.
But most of that early potential quickly evaporates once Will’s family moves in. We’re treated to a series of shallow, banal conversations that don’t give us any insight into any of the characters’ motivations, forcing us to discover such things by reading the negative space around them. Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing to be found there. There are several questions that arise over the course of the film but almost no answers. There is absolutely zero political or cultural metaphor in the families’ interactions. When people finally start to turn on each other, the development seems to come out of nowhere, since Shults hasn’t done an adequate job of establishing anybody in his milieu. He goes straight from the act one foundation to the act three climax, the only foreshadowing being a completely random, completely macabre Pieter Bruegel painting on one of the cabin’s wall.
The lone exception is Kelvin Harrison Jr’s Travis, and that’s completely due to Harrison’s effortless naturalism. He’s the closest thing we get to an audience surrogate, and while we never get the expository answers such a surrogate usually delivers, that’s completely the fault of Shults’ maddeningly opaque script. Harrison conveys a depth of emotion greater than the rest of the cast combined, often with only his eyes or the quiver of a jaw. He’s quietly magnetic, even if the material he’s given isn’t up to his level.
He comes off better than the rest of the cast, most of which are stuck playing one emotion based upon one or two defining character traits. While the hook of the film is watching people descend into paranoia, Joel Edgerton’s Paul is pretty much already there when the film begins and never moves. He approaches his role with a hypnotic and admirable dedication, but Paul is a character who’s volume is cranked all the way to 11 and never gets any quieter. Christopher Abbot does what he can with Will, but as most of his scenes are opposite Edgerton, his downplayed approach gets steamrolled by Edgerton’s intensity. Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are both mostly wasted, sadly, with flat roles as a terrified mama bear and a vulnerable waif respectively.
To be honest, the film is more effective when the characters don’t speak or aren’t even on screen at all. Shults sets the entire film either inside Paul’s large-but-confined home or the forest directly outside. We never get a feeling for how the cabin itself is arranged, but that actually works in the film’s favor, giving the place a kind of alien mystique. The cabin never truly feels like a home, even to Paul’s family. The most frightening aspect about the visuals, in fact, is the idea that there is no safe space or ability to get a sense of place.
Shults overplays his hand here, though, and he relies too heavily on a handful of quickly-exhausted tricks to keep the tension mounting. He repeatedly features a slow tracking shot down the cabin hallway that leads to an ominous red door, the only way into or out of the house. While at first creepily effective, it quickly becomes tiresome the more he does it. Likewise, he too often cuts to Travis’ disturbed dreams, which makes for an unsettling aside until the third or fourth time it happens. Most of the horror scenes — and really, every single horror image from the trailers — is found in these dreams, making Travis’ waking world seem pedestrian in comparison.
The best part of the film by far is the score by Brian McOmber, which fluidly shifts between melody and discord with a terrifying grace. The first tracking shot leading to the red door is scored by melancholic, minor-chord strings that slowly mutate into atonal clusters until finally giving way to a frighteningly monochromatic drone. Like the film itself, McOmber’s score is tight and sparsely-populated, but unlike the film itself, it’s possessed of an intangible sense of pure, unaffected dread. Had the film been half as long and a silent picture, with only McOber’s score as dialogue, perhaps it would have lived up to all its festival-circuit hype.
In the end, despite a handful of compelling performances, It Comes At Night is a film with almost nothing to say and almost nowhere to go. Shults’ camera work and sense of frame are both impeccable, but his genre skills leave something to be desired. When the most terrifying aspect of your horror film is the soundtrack and the most fully sympathetic character is the family dog, perhaps its time to re-examine your work. Might I suggest adding a second act? I hear most films have one of those.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C