It may be true that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, but as “It Comes at Night” proves, fear itself is nothing to sneer at. In small doses, fear might produce involuntary spasms or mild nausea—easily treatable symptoms—but long-term exposure can infect the mind with such terminal diseases as paranoia and jealousy.
We learn all this and more in Trey Edward Shults’ film—not through the lips of a character or overly wrought theatrics, but through action and consequence. This minimalist approach extends to the rest of the film, which is appropriate, considering that fear is a raw, austere emotion, and it best dealt with on that level.
We’re told very little of our main characters, but we’re told enough. They are a small family unit, headed by Paul (Joel Edgerton), one of those outdoorsy types whose life seems to only just begin after the world has ended. He’s holed up with his wife and son in a rickety cabin, surrounded by silent woods, where the trees seem to have their backs turned at all times. The cabin isn’t particularly memorable, save for a single red door, which is always to be kept shut and double-locked; no one is to go out, except for extreme circumstances, and no one is to come in, under any circumstance. It’s like something out of “Alice in Wonderland.” Once again, we’re told very little of the danger outside the door, other than that it’s thought to be an airborne virus and has a somewhat zombie-like effect on the human anatomy.
A spooky cabin surrounded by a spooky forest should be recognizable to anyone who’s ever channel-surfed on Halloween, but Shults doesn’t fall into genre trappings. Instead of eliminating teenagers in grotesque fashion or making a cinematic Jack-in-the-Box, Shults uses this unsettling atmosphere for a different effect. He wishes to isolate the audience with the characters, so that there can be no distractions–no outside influences–for what is a succinct, psychological drama.
For so few souls and so little activity, there is much going on here–lurking under the surface like a spirit in the basement. Paul is struggling with his patriarchal duties and has put survival above all else; in his mind, seeing the next day is more important than savoring the present day. This puts him in a tough spot upon the arrival of another family, who are looking for shelter and food. Who are they? Does aiding them weaken himself? His family? His son’s head is even more knotted up. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, the young man crawls into the attic, until he’s within eavesdropping distance of the visiting family’s room. As they joke around–somehow still buoyant and playful at the end of the world—he laughs along with them, starved for emotion. Paul knows how to preserve his family, but he can’t nourish them.
Shults weaves through these character moments with a deft hand, building tension with every bad dream and misspoken word, building sympathy with every poor kid huddled up by himself in an attic. It’s amazing how much emotion and terror he’s able to squeeze out of a single piece of dialogue or a lone image. Shults keeps the story compact and the audience in the dark when it comes to details because he knows that what people fear most—more than any vampire or werewolf—is what they don’t understand.
“It Comes at Night” is a more reflective film than most, in that looking at it will produce a different image for everyone. It is a slow burn, but don’t expect a stick of dynamite to go off at the last second. All it leaves you with is a pile of ashes.
4 out of 5 stars