Emily Shawcross makes her Failed Critics debut to review new mystery thriller, It Comes At Night, a faithful ode to Greek tragedy. Warning: here be spoilers!
The power of It Comes At Night is not found in what you take from it but rather what it doesn’t answer. There is no time for a proper explanation, the post-apocalyptic world the characters find themselves in simply is, brought on by a plague that has no name. This film is not about a transparent triumph over evil, in many ways it is simply about being human, which is a lot more terrifying and unsettling than a supernatural entity or a man with an axe on a killing spree.
The story follows a family’s attempt to survive after a plague has spread presumably across the world. When a man attempts to break into their home, they allow him and his family to stay with them. However, as tensions between the families rise and the risk of contraction of the plague becomes more apparent, they inevitably turn on each other. The film is told predominantly through the eyes of Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his growing paranoia, evidenced with his nightmares, drives the plot forward. The story is character driven, with raw, unsettling, and poignant performances from Kelvin Harrison Jr., Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, and Riley Keough. Notably, Edgerton leads the cast with a particularly brutal performance as Travis’ father Paul, while Keough’s harrowing portrayal of a desperate mother trying to protect her young son Andrew shines through. No character feels out of place, nor do their actions seem questionable or uncalled for, which makes everything so much more unsettling.
Trey Edward Shults uses all aspects of this film to their optimum advantage, notably space and score. Having the red door and the room it leads to as the focal point works as that space is liminal; it is the threshold between the harmful outside world and the fragmented safety of the house. Travis’ dreams revolve around what exists behind that door, with those dreams being the place where the paranoia builds until it spills over into his reality when Stanley returns after his disappearance. The score is harsh and ambient, ironically only really being notable in lesser scenes, while the tension and brutality of the final act are emboldened by silence. Shults’ unconventional use of camera work, particularly the claustrophobic aspect ratio, captures the inevitability of fate without directly spelling it out. In any tragedy, the primary focus is to leave audiences with fear and empathy. Having the film constantly going back to Travis’ nightmares, then ending with him becoming sick and consequently dying leads the viewer to empathise with his doomed character. The film is almost reminiscent of the ouroboros, a narrative device where the end of the story is implicit in the beginning, following a cyclical structure. This is shown through Travis’ first dream and his death, and then the family sat around the table after the burial of Travis’ grandfather at the beginning with Paul (Edgerton) and Sarah (Ejogo) sat at the table after the burial of Travis.
The beauty of It Comes At Night is found in the purposeful ambiguity of the title. The “It” in question is never fully defined, leaving it open to interpretation. For example, it may be the disease itself, Travis’ nightmares, or the arrival of Will (Abbott) and his family, bringing with them the inevitable doom of Travis, Sarah, and Paul. This ambiguity is ideal as this film is essentially a character study of two families in desperate situations, where good and bad are merged with no clear moral focal point. The actions are so horrific because they are very human responses to those scenarios and there is no catharsis for neither character or viewer.
This film will divide audiences. Those wanting a gory, adrenaline-pumping horror movie will find nothing of value here. However, those who actually like to think about what they’re watching and don’t need jump scares and ghosts to feel disturbed will find a tense psychological thriller with a vein of quiet, brilliant horror.