Home is where good health isn’t in It Comes at Night, a terrifying saga about the corruption of a clan’s safe haven by both external and internal forces. The setting is a remote woodland cabin in an unspecified state, inhabited by bearded Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton). The last of these residents isn’t long for the family domicile, though, as the film opens on a close-up of him wheezing his final breaths in a room wrapped in plastic, sores adorning his face and a blank look in his eyes, and his daughter delivering a teary “I love you” farewell while wearing a gas mask. That goodbye given, Bud is wheeled outside by Paul and Travis, placed on a blanket, shot in the face through a pillow by Paul, and then rolled into a freshly dug grave, where his body is swiftly set ablaze.
Audiences will be forgiven for feeling like their equilibrium has been rudely shattered by this introductory salvo, which sets a tone of ever-present peril – one in which misery, violence and death might materialize at any moment – that persists for the rest of director Trey Edward Shults’ unconventional nerve-jangler. As with his critically acclaimed 2016 debut Krisha, Shults’ sophomore effort is a story about family bonds, tensions and eruptions. However, whereas his prior work was a domestic drama about an older addict’s appearance at her relatives’ Thanksgiving dinner after years of estrangement, It Comes at Night is cast in a more overt genre-movie mold. Which is to say: it’s here to confound, unnerve, upset and horrify. And the formal way in which it sets about that mission is, ultimately, as vital to its success as any particular narrative twist or turn.
Shults isn’t one for exposition, doling out details about Paul, Sarah and Travis’ circumstances in bits and pieces. In early passages, the three spend their days sticking close to their isolated home, and their nights holed up inside it, using electric lamps as their only sources of light, keeping their firearms at the ready, and steadfastly making sure to lock a giant red door, behind which stands the aforementioned plastic-encased room, as well as the only entrance/exit to the house. “Everything’s going to be okay,” says Paul to his wife, trying to comfort her about Travis’ state of mind in the aftermath of his diseased grandfather’s execution. “You don’t honestly believe that, do you?” she responds. Considering what we’ve already witnessed mere minutes into the proceedings, it’s hard to disagree with her skepticism about their future.
What sort of highly communicable virus has motivated Paul and company to hide away from the world? Why are they especially worried about nocturnal dangers? And more pressing still, what is going on with Travis, who has a habit of eavesdropping on his parents through their empty attic’s floorboards, and who’s plagued by dreadful dreams of undead Bud and biological contamination? Shults refrains from saying much of anything about those initial questions. Instead, he opts to further ratchet up the tension when, one evening, strange noises begin emanating from behind the red door. Armed, Paul checks it out, and discovers Will (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), a stranger who – after being knocked out, tied to a tree, gagged, and left to sit and wait a while with a bag over his head – apologizes for his intrusion, claiming he was simply in search of water for his nearby wife Kim (The Girlfriend Experience’s Riley Keough) and toddler son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).
A gruff man determined to protect his brood at all costs, Paul greets this story with suspicion. Nonetheless, in need of the food Will claims to possess, he reluctantly decides to free him. Following a jarring run-in with two gunmen, which underlines the hazardousness of this every-man-for-himself new world order, Paul and Sarah agree to bring Will, Kim, and Andrew into their enclave, figuring there’s safety (and extra supplies) in numbers. And for a time, this makeshift Brady Bunch arrangement proceeds smoothly. Yet its stability, it turns out, is a sham, undone by only a few inapt glances – from Paul to Will and Travis, and even worse, from Travis to Kim – and a late incident (not to be spoiled here) that compels everyone to act on their least level-headed impulses.
It Comes at Night unspools at a methodical pace, first exposing the small cracks in this domestic situation, and then watching as they widen into fissures. It does this via alluringly ominous aesthetics which prove key to its mounting suspense. Collaborating with cinematographer Drew Daniels, Shults constantly depicts his characters surrounded by claustrophobic darkness, the better to suggest the foulness pressing upon them. His camera slinks down dim passageways, often heading directly into the frame, and – in long, unbroken takes – it glides back and forth between (and around) speakers during dialogue scenes. The result is a visual schema that’s eerily serpentine and dreamy, the latter quality augmented by both transitional fades used to move between Travis’ waking and slumbering states, and the variety of different aspect ratios Shults employs for the boy’s nightmares.
Similar to Krisha, It Comes at Night’s sonic design is also crucial to its creeping-death mood. Brian McOmber’s soundscape goes heavy on strings that slither over the action, striking ever-more-anxious notes in tune with these survivors’ fearful conditions (or, in more peaceful instances, conveying a heartening sense of camaraderie and discovery). Those compositions are punctuated by bass tones that rumble and crash with jolting weight, further creating an overarching atmosphere of things slowly shattering to pieces. More than its expert plotting or its harried performances – led by Abbott’s hard-to-pin-down turn, which comes on the heels of his masterful work in 2015’s indie James White – its Shults’ disquieting style that sustains the film’s edgy volatility all the way through to its end. That conclusion is all the more haunting for remaining somewhat ambiguous, although what ultimately lingers once It Comes at Night is finished is its clear, troubling portrait of distrust’s powerful pull – and the personal and familial doom that follows in its wake.