While a viral outbreak runs rampant throughout the world, Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) take refuge in their boarded up house, constantly on the lookout for trouble and taking care not to become infected. When a man, Will (Christopher Abbott), breaks in one night, believing the house to be abandoned, Paul captures him and learns that Will was trying to salvage fresh water for his family, who eventually come to live alongside Paul and his family. Although they initially get on quite well, strange things start happening and it isn’t long before paranoia and suspicion starts to grow, threatening to tear them all apart.
Being the small scale film that it is, It Comes at Night only really has about five main characters. Joel Edgerton heads up the cast as Paul, the protective husband and father who does all that he can to protect his family, gradually coming to appreciate the company of Will and his family but constantly on the lookout for any trouble, never completely trusting anyone and always preparing for the worst. Although his character is never really fleshed out as well as it could’ve been, Edgerton is as impressive and reliable as always and delivers a perfectly pitched performance, being the strong, protective paternal figure while also subtly conveying his suspicion and distrust with particular eye movements and body language.
The other noteworthy performance, probably even more so than Edgerton’s, is that of Kelvin Harrison Jr. who is cast as son Travis. His is the most fascinating and compelling character to watch; while he initially appears somewhat disturbed and unstable, he comes to enjoy spending time with Will and Kim (Riley Keough) but is eventually plagued by disturbing nightmares as his family’s paranoia causes him to lose his mind and to fret about possibly becoming infected with the sickness. Harrison Jr. holds his own against Edgerton and Ejogo and gives a finely tuned performance, displaying a sense of innocence and genuine care but at certain moments, hiding a dark side as we sometimes doubt whether his intentions are pure or not.
I do though have a certain qualm about the character of Travis in that certain character traits of his are introduced but are never built upon to the fullest extent. In particular, several early shots suggest a certain resentment towards his father, given the creepy way that he looks out of the window at him and there’s also a particular camera shot of a family photo in which Travis and his mother are together but Paul, although standing right next to them, seems separate and out of place, suggesting a difference and distance between the two males. Coupled with the idea of Will becoming a sort of replacement father (he and Travis happily chop wood while Paul suspiciously looks on at them), these father issues of Travis’ are teased but are eventually forgotten about. Plus there’s also the unrequited attraction that Travis has for Will’s wife Kim; it fits in perfectly to the story since the arrival of an attractive female would stir up all sorts of feelings in the 17 year-old Travis and though this story element is toyed with, sometimes appearing to go down the Norman Bates voyeuristic route, it ultimately doesn’t amount to much.
Elsewhere, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough are great performers and are all likeable and charismatic enough but their characters aren’t fully developed as Paul and Travis primarily take centre stage.
Despite a slow opening to the film, Trey Edward Shults’ direction is admirable as he very effectively creates an overall tone choc full of paranoia, unease and suspicion, often leading us to wonder whether there’s even a sickness at all or whether the characters are needlessly turning on each other due to being in constant close proximity to each other. There are some great circling shots during Will’s “interrogation” and Shults knows just when to use close-up shots and slow zooms to maximise the tension, especially with those oh-so-ominous shots of that foreboding blood red door. The overall atmosphere is remarkably chilling and uneasy but there is also just the right amount of gore used, utilising a few jump scares here and there and it all eventually builds to a satisfyingly exciting final act. As for his story/script, it isn’t the most eventful story ever and, being nit-picky, I suppose I felt a little short-changed as I ultimately wanted It Comes at Night to go that little bit further and to be just a tad more eventful but the small scale-ness still works in its favour and is ultimately a grounded, self-contained feature.
And the final shot is PERFECT, saying so much with a simple, but so suggestive, bit of eye contact.
The clever use of lighting is particularly noteworthy; the primary light sources within the film come from lanterns, torches and candles and the light, or indeed lack of, helps maximize the claustrophobic, nightmarish atmosphere. And Brian McOmber’s score is just right – it doesn’t go overboard with an obvious scary sound but rather, it is subtle, effective and provides just the right amount of tension when required.
So It Comes at Night is this year’s The VVitch – an A24 film, written and directed by one man, featuring a small family, a dog, the woods, farm animals, some unrequited lust, the hinting of a possible supernatural force and a whole load of paranoia and turning on each other. Even the opening title font is similar!