Director: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Riley Keough
Cinematographer: Drew Daniels
Original Release Date: June 9, 2017
Of all the types of horror subgenres, it is Psychological Horror that appeals to me the most. Monsters have long been a representation of our fears- an exploitation of the human experience. However, there is something to be said about a monster we cannot see, cannot hear, and is intangible. It is the fear of the unknown that haunts us: fear of death, fear of insanity, fear of sickness- the same fears that It Comes at Night embodies.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night is a film about a teen named Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and his family who must fight for survival during a time in which a mysterious disease has taken hold of the world. Although his family does not know what the disease is or where it originated, they do know that within 24 hours of contracting the disease, the infected dies. The father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), has a strict set of rules that must always be followed, the most important being to never open the red door at night. They are later joined by a sketchy family, and they settle into a comfortable routine. It isn’t until Travis finds the door open one night that things take a turn for the worst. Accusations fly and ultimately, Paul dictates that both families spend the next 24 hours apart to make sure no one has been infected. In the end, it is not the disease that kills them, but their fear of it. In an effort to save their respective families, Paul and Will go head to head with disastrous results.
There are several noteworthy aspects of It Comes at Night that make it a great film overall. For one, the acting is beautiful among the entire cast, but Kelvin Harrison Jr. and his facial expressions win this one, even over Joel Edgerton. It would be a disservice not to mention the technical aspects of this film as well. The sound design was wonderful and perfectly assists the storyline. Some of these moments add a layer of suspense that only elevates the film as a whole. For instance, up until the ending, you mostly hear the characters’ heavy breathing while they are wearing gas masks, conveying the true panic of this disease. There are moments when the only thing you can hear are the sounds of nature, and it is immersive. It’s almost impossible to not fully submerge yourself into this world- into the fears of these families.
The soundtrack/score is phenomenal as well. Brian McOmber truly elevates every scene his music plays in. A perfect example of this is during Travis’ nightmares. The music overhead is haunting, almost hollow in nature. The sound increases as Travis panics, until he wakens, and it slowly dissipates. This music plays every time Travis is having a nightmare, and it is a useful way of deciphering between his dreams and reality. It also makes the third act that much better- when Travis’ nightmares become reality, further enforced by the same song playing.
Also in relation to Travis’ nightmares is the aspect ratio. It tightens and becomes smaller when Travis’ nightmares begin. It is suffocating, completely focused on Travis and the subject he has conjured – his deceased grandpa, Kim (Riley Keough), Will’s wife, and himself covered in lesions. Again, it becomes a way for the viewer to decipher between a nightmare and reality, until the third act, when they become one. It is masterful to watch.
The film is at its peak when director Shults’ visions become a key aspect of the story’s intensity, especially when it comes to the red door- the focal point of all the most tense scenes. Trey Edward Shults along with cinematographer Drew Davis truly created something beautiful. Travis, walking alone around the house, complete darkness save for a lantern. Stanley, the dog, facing the woods, small creature against a supposed monster hiding within. Paul and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), his wife, sitting across one another, in complete silence, defeated. There are no grand landscape shots, a favored view amongst many moviegoers, including myself. But the scenes in which the characters themselves or the door are the focus are truly standout moments that only heighten the fears embedded within.
Though the entirety of the film is enjoyable and perfectly serves to increase tension, it is the third act that will leave heads reeling. It is now understood that what deserves our fear is not monsters, not a disease that may or may not exist, but ourselves. This fear of dying, of being sick- it drove these characters to extremes. Will, a liar and willing to endanger everyone at the expense of having his family safe, and Paul, rigid in his rules and willing to murder for his. There is no way of knowing whether this apocalypse is really happening, nothing in the woods, not that we can see, anyway. There is no certainty regarding the disease either. Who is to say it actually takes hours? Maybe they were all already infected and insanity had taken over. Perhaps Stanley was barking at a figment of his imagination, a theory further proven when Travis draws monsters no one has seen or heard- sounds his father can’t hear. It is up to the viewer to answer these questions, if at all. But ultimately, we realize that Travis and his nightmares are really just his fears of getting sick, and it makes the ending that much more heartbreaking.
It Comes at Night may not be a traditional horror movie, but it leaves you feeling broke in a way that only reflecting on humanity’s misdeeds can. It is a true reflection of the unknown and the fears that are born of it- the way it poisons humans and destroys our empathy. It is bleak and haunting and beautiful in all its terror. Simply put, it’s a film that will stay with you for days just as fear haunted the families every night.