Sometimes the scariest part of a horror movie is not knowing what you’re afraid of.
It’s a hook that was used with considerable success in last year’s critically praised indie thriller The Witch and more recently in contemporary scare-fest Get Out, and it’s just as masterfully employed in writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ latest film, It Comes At Night.
The film is set in some indeterminate recent or near-future period when a viral contagion has forced a small family to seek refuge in an isolated house deep in the woods. Joel Edgerton (Warrior, The Gift) stars as Paul, a father looking to protect his family from a vague but sinister threat lurking outside their fortified residence. When they come into contact with another family searching for a place to call home, paranoia and the pressures of protecting their loved ones at all costs threaten the tenuous sense of security for both families, and the dangers outside the door begin to find their way inside.
Or, as the film seems to imply, maybe the danger was always there.
The film relentlessly ratchets up the tension, from its graphic opening scene to its somber final moments.
Edgerton has become a staple of tense thrillers in recent years, from his co-starring role as a mixed martial arts fighter in 2011’s surprisingly compelling Warrior, through 2015’s revenge drama The Gift (which he wrote, directed, and co-starred in) and last year’s sci-fi mystery Midnight Special. He’s an expert at keeping the audience uncertain of where his characters stand, maintaining that suspension well beyond the point at which most movies separate the heroes from the villains.
The actor walks that line with razor precision in It Comes At Night, as the film relentlessly ratchets up the tension from its graphic opening scene to its somber final moments. And Edgerton is far from alone in driving the film’s grim narrative forward.
The small cast delivers a collectively impressive performance, with each character feeding off the paranoia and mistrust that’s soaked into every inch of the story and infests every action they take and every word they speak. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is particularly impressive as Paul’s son, Travis, and conveys the amplifying effect of being a teenager in such a terrifying existence with gut-twisting effectiveness. Fellow cast members Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, and Riley Keough each bring their own stress factor to the equation, pushing the level of tension to the boiling point.
Shults has a skilled eye for suspense, and his use of light and shadows makes the world both outside and within the house seem equally dangerous, but in very different ways. He teases the audience with the unknown presence implied by the film’s title, feinting in one direction narratively, then directing the audience’s attention to something else entirely.
It’s a technique that could easily prove frustrating in the wrong hands, but Shults has a knack for making every misdirection and uncertainty seem like a key part of the mystery that’s unraveling before you.
While the film resorts to the sort of jump-scare moments that are standard fare in horror movies, It Comes At Night is surprisingly bloodless and light on gore, relying instead on the power of the audience’s own imagination to fill in the frights that aren’t brought to the screen. It’s another strategy that’s terrifyingly effective thanks to Schults’ leading eye, and with the exception of the film’s nightmare sequences – which feel over-used as a narrative technique – the director shows an impressive grasp of how much to give the audience at any given point, keeping you wanting more.
It Comes At Night is the sort of movie that plays best when the audience has no idea what to expect. The filmmakers want you to enter the theater curious, and do a nice job of pulling you deeper into the film’s murky depths with every twist. That said, those looking for simple answers to the burning questions presented by the film may come away somewhat unsatisfied. Any cathartic release the movie offers comes with new terrors to ponder, and the answers it does provide are scary in their own ways.
Horror comes in many forms, and It Comes At Night takes inspiration from many of them, but the film is at its best when it hits close to home. And thanks to a talented cast and skillful writing and direction, it does just that with disturbing frequency, leaving an impression on you long after the credits roll.