What Comes at Night?

A24’s latest horror production disturbs.

From the studio that brought you The Witch and Academy award-winner Moonlight comes It Comes At Night. Much like the title, the film leaves you unsettled and wanting more. On the way out of the theater, people complained about the ending. But, as film-blogger Chris Stuckmann says about audience expectations, they often ruin good horror films. Perhaps what disappointed people in the theater was this: whatever “It” is, you never see. In other words, there is no easy solution for making sense of the world that writer and director Trey Edward Shults creates.

The film is set in a discrete cabin in the woods after a plague has, to say the least, altered society. The cabin is inhabited by Paul, Sarah, their son Travis and their dog (played by Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr., respectively). Like Shults’ acclaimed directorial debut Krisha, It Comes is very much about dynamics within the family and between another family. Edgerton fills well the role of fierce, at times brutal, provider and protector. Travis, 17 years old, is traumatized at witnessing Paul enact a mercy killing on an infected, close family member. The plot is largely filtered through his hopes and desires, balanced with his overwhelming terror at the prospect of a death by gruesome disease or, perhaps worse, mercy killing by his own, hardened father.    

When Paul and Sarah encounter and decide to allow a new family to live in their home, Travis’ anxiety subsides, somewhat. Under Paul’s extreme vetting, a young couple bring their toddler-age son and a few farm animals to Paul and Sarah’s home, bringing a relieving sense of hope—especially to Travis. Paul, Sarah and Travis learn to trust and care for the new family. But, in turn, their attempt to make a better life comes at a cost. Shults walks the audience through intimate character studies and dialogues to show how Travis’ vivid nightmares manifest.

Shults may have lost some audience members by withholding the details of the plague and its associated threats toward the families. We have only the clue that the threat comes at “night”, if not from the film’s name, also from the bit in the trailer where Paul says they never go out at night. These points signify to the audience that the nighttime is the central threat. In reality, nighttime might be an arbitrary rule made by Paul, in an attempt to create some semblance of order in the apocalypse. Some might find these ambiguities misleading. I argue that they lead the audience to deeply empathize with the family’s own confusion.

★★★★✩

It Comes At Night

In theaters Friday, June 9

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