Like The Witch, It Comes at Night is an object lesson in how to stylize asceticism. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s second film is a survivalist parable, and though it aggressively traffics in the iconography of pop horror and sci-fi, it subverts the world-building impulses of those genres. It Comes at Night is set in a cabin in the woods with a menacing red door, and its post-apocalyptic near-future is imperiled by some kind of bacterial plague, but all of the film’s suspense derives from how little the audience knows about the circumstances its characters are trying to survive. Something is going to come knocking on the heavily secured red door, but not knowing what form the titular “it” will take is terrifying and, at least for a little while, liberating.
What’s even more exciting is how Shults leads us to that door. He and DP Drew Daniels make perfect use of widescreen: The cabin’s narrow hallway feels squat and cramped, but the frame’s extra width allows us to scan the family photos on the walls on a search for clues about the home in which we’re trapped. There are none, so maybe those distractions just help to relieve the uncanny tension of the camera’s movement, which is aloft and gliding, headed slowly but surely to whatever is banging the hell out of the door. Shults and Daniels use this trick repeatedly, inside and in exterior scenes, in a motif that essentially flips the script on a horror film with a similar title. In It Follows, death and (sexually transmitted) disease can take the shape of any human being, and it comes for us unrelentingly; the finest shots in Shults’s film suggest that we’re inexorably drawn toward this very thing.
If only the edifice surrounding this controlled mastery of the camera could support such a reading, or any reading at all. The film’s minimalism is rigorous, but its every moment of barebones craftsmanship is accompanied by plodding drama and an unsustainable heap of unanswered questions. The film begins with a mercy killing: Husband Paul (Joel Edgerton), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) move cautiously through the cabin, rifle at the ready, their path lit by a flashlight attached to the barrel. They’re wearing gas masks and their dialogue is hard to parse, but after they haul an old man (David Pendleton) covered in icky lesions out of the house and into a ditch, their distress is evident. The man, immolated to curb the spread of infection, was the family patriarch, and Edgerton’s stern but loving father is left as the leader and protector of his clan.
How is it that a film so beholden to dull, unnecessary exposition can be so eager to avoid explaining itself?
Maybe this is life after wartime, or maybe it’s a boilerplate zombie apocalypse, but a few shots of a Bruegel painting get at the film’s general vibe: a civilization surrounded by fire and beset by disarray. Vigilance and the primacy of family relationships are paramount, a solemn state of affairs distilled at nightly dinners, where sad plates of peas and carrots are illuminated by a harsh camper’s lantern. The disquiet is punctured both by Travis’s nightmares—eerily nested images of future portent—and by an intruder named Will (Christopher Abbott), who breaks into the boarded-up cabin assuming it’s empty and seeking provisions for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and young child, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families cautiously decide to combine their resources: Paul is enticed by Will’s livestock, and Will craves Paul’s access to water and safe shelter. Their negotiations are rigorously practical, but it’s from this moment that the film starts to feel less like a crafty exercise in moderation than an early chapter of Survivalism for Dummies, or a particularly morose round of Settlers of Catan.
Though it prides itself on forbidding thrills and sparse dialogue, It Comes at Night is stacked with exposition. In its contradictory layers of emotional transparency, Shults’s debut, Krisha, got to the fraught heart of familial relationships in a manner reminiscent of HBO’s The Leftovers. But here the conversations are rote: As Shults develops the heightening distrust between the two families, he undermines the naturalism of his actors by having them punctuate tense scenes of rule-making and negotiation with obvious sentiments. Some variation of “My family’s all that matters” and “We have to be smart; we can’t be emotional” arrives with metronomic regularity, and it’s not long before these insipid statements become suffocating. (Edgerton’s natural mix of stoicism and warmth nearly redeem a thin character, but Abbott may as well be auditioning for a hunky antihero role on The Walking Dead.) The only character in the film who seems to imagine an alternative life or even convey any sense of interiority is the haunted teen Travis, robbed off his youth and creeping on Will and Kim’s nocturnal encounters.
What this frustration and unease add up to is left to the audience’s imagination. How is it that a film so beholden to dull, unnecessary exposition can be so eager to avoid explaining itself? Just as he withholds the “it” of the title, Shults never attempts to justify the escalating paranoia of his characters. This is a sensitive decision, and an interesting one for a film that documents a failure of empathy, in which a mixed-race family offers a white family respite from encroaching doom. Every film about societal collapse is, in part, a political allegory; the causes of civilizational decline are nearly always a result of human decisions, and if they’re not, human nature reveals itself in the aftermath of said decline. But Shults so assiduously strips elements of politics and history from It Comes at Night’s characters that they come to seem like empty husks. What’s left is a strangely hollow genre exercise, at once distinctive and utterly bereft of identity or interiority.