Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough
Runtime: 91 Minutes
Trey Edward Shults’ ultra low budget debut, Krisha, positioned the audience in an otherwise relatable environment of family congress at Thanksgiving and twisted it into a gradually unspooling nightmare of tensions through the use of visual technique and language through editing. It Comes at Night is only his second feature but it feels like the work of someone who’s been working for years, and shares more than its fair share of thematic substance with that of his debut.
This low-key and genuinely upsetting thriller sees the end of the world – or at least western civilisation – from the perspective of two small family units who find each other in the wilderness. What ensues is a slow untying of the psyches brought together in a claustrophobic interior environment that places the seeds of mistrust directly at the door that separates them from the desolation of the outside world.
It’s best to go in as blind as possible to the dramatic conflict at its core, which sees the two gruff patriarchs at the head of their own broods (Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott) colliding as they try to do their best on their own. The back-to-basics nature of the world has reduced them to the level of alpha males incapable of expressing emotion to one another and instead seeing their resourcefulness as hunters and protectors as their last standing virtues in a world where much civilised conversation has become secondary to the need to survive in a world ravaged by an unidentifiable and horrifically symptomatic plague.
Underneath this clash boils the coming-of-age tensions of the Edgerton’s eldest son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in an environment where he can’t fully explore his own sexuality when the two women in the household are both married and his mother (Riley Keough and Carmen Ejogo). Never mind the emotional distress of the opening sequence in which a beloved former family member is taken outside to be killed having succumbed to the mysterious infection, an event that leaves the young man utterly traumatised yet composed enough to conceal in the presence of others.
His trauma manifests in nightmare sequences that are the closest the film comes to conventional horror – at least until the final act. The direction in and out of these sequences is superbly disturbing, with Shults utilising many of the same techniques with the same crew used in Krisha. Drew Daniels cinematography is stoic and dark as it hauntingly lingers over the drama and stretches metaphor out of its frames, which shift the aspect ratio into claustrophobic tightness at times in a way that burs the lines of what is perceived to be fantasy and reality. Shults’ editing is equally disturbing as the film appears to literally change form through fades and cross cuts like a morphing mosaic.
Although the foreboding mystique of the title might suggest otherwise, It Comes at Night is more horrifying because of what it chooses not to show. Far from the conventions of the otherwise oversaturated post-apocalypse subgenre, Shults’ film trades visual horror for relentlessly bleak dramatic menace, with some career-best performances from all involved. It captures a moment in the lives of these characters where life seems to go on after the film closes with one of the most devastating final shots of the entire year.