In the world destroyed by a deadly disease that spreads like a wildfire, Paul has managed to keep his family isolated, but alive and well in the cottage deep in the woods. One day, a man shows up begging for help for his family – without showing any symptoms of the fatal illness. Paul takes him under his roof with his wife and their little son, but their forest fortress can’t protect them from the inevitable.
Trey Edward Shults creates an incredibly realistic, post-apocalyptic world. Although the cottage in the woods seems like a horror film cliché, he populates it with complex characters, each equipped with so much more than a survival instinct. We’ve got Paul’s fatherly but authoritarian figure, his teenage son fighting with the nightmares after the loss of his grandpa and a recently discovered lust for his new housemate, and Will’s protective determination that pushes him to madness; the motivations of the people living together and their conflicted interest in the times of danger play on the basic evolutionary drive. They’ve got one common goal indeed – but whether they make it together or not is enforced by the relationships inside the limited space of the house.
Talking about the most primal of the human instincts, the director and the scriptwriter of this film tries to analyse the human behaviour in the times of danger. His analysis of the human nature is far from moralising – instead, it’s a critique of paranoia and instinctive looking for an enemy. The household works well, but distrust creates smoke and mirrors that are making it a pressure cooker with every second. Paul says that the only people he’d trust are his family, but his priorities are to be questioned when the pieces of the bigger picture start coming together.
That creates a fantastic device for pushing the plot ahead, with reactions enforced by the pressure of the circumstances which are so fresh and understandable that we dive right into the complicated relations of the tangled world. The cast makes an excellent use of what’s been given to them: Joel Edgerton as Paul is sensitive and human when he speaks to his guests over the dinner table, but also uncompromising and tough when a danger arises for his family. On the other side, we’ve got Christopher Abbott as Will. He behaves just like Paul, but when the conflict of interest sets them against each other, the war of egos makes sparks fly. Soon, the smokescreens fall apart.
However, Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Travis is possibly one of the most interesting characters: cursed by the recurrent nightmares, having witnessed his grandfather’s death and dealing with feelings for Will’s wife, he’s one of the most psychologically complicated characters of the movie. He eavesdrops and possibly knows the most about everybody – but he’s also lovingly innocent, trusting and sensitive. His desire for Kim is also prominent, and Riley Keough (recently in a fantastic performance in American Honey) helps to grow the straining tension between them.
Splendid cinematography and minimal, terrifying soundtrack add to the eerie feeling of the film, deepening our own uncertainty about what we’re allowed to see and what we think about it. Nature shots in the daylight and the rooms of the cottage slumped in darkness are a phenomenal background for the events, when the ambience of the sound holds the audience tight in its grip as we watch the film. It’s not just a great story, it’s an audio-visual delight.
Without relying on cheap scares, It Comes at Night packs a psychological baggage for every character and plays on our own trust as it waits for the story to unfold. Without unnecessary gore, it leaves you with too many things to think about. The impactful darkness of the story and well-drawn, multifaceted characters will leave you questioning the distraught behaviours of humanity which masquerade themselves as the will to live; will they lead to survival or extinction at the end of the day?
It Comes at Night opens in the UK this Friday, the 7th of July 2017.