Trey Edwards Shults offers an unnerving study into the inner workings of human emotion, American paranoia, and family, in his second feature film, It Comes at Night. With his tension-packed first feature “Krisha” (2016) wowing critics, his follow-up has been much anticipated. The title alone is something to be interpreted, leading viewers to believe this is a standard post-apocalyptic horror film, which could be no further from the truth.
Living in an isolated house in the woods, the film follows Paul (Joel Egerton) his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harris Jr) as they attempt to survive, following the outbreak of a virulent disease. This is all the context the viewer is offered as to what is going on “out there.”
The film begins with the death of Travis’ Grandfather, who succumbs to the “sickness,” before life, as the characters now know it, resumes: complete with gas masks, rationing and locked doors. Until someone tries to break in.
Fellow survivor, Will (Christopher Abbott) seeks supplies for his family and following the initial suspicion of this newcomer, Paul eventually agrees that Will and his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) can stay. What starts off as a welcome change in circumstances for them all, quickly begins to turn sour as paranoia weighs heavily on Paul and his mission to protect his family turns all outsiders into the enemy.
Shults has not only offered an impressive take on the post-apocalyptic sub-genre by manipulating archetypal horror tropes, he also brings to the surface issues surrounding gender roles and family ties. The film also stands as a celebration of wild America, with its threatening, expansive forests: a source of fear but also vital for their survival.
The demons in this tale are internal, and as Paul begins to turn against Will and his family, viewers see where the true horror really lies. Exploring ways in which fear of the unknown and the need to survive can spark tension and paranoia amongst people is something many will find relevant today and because the film is focused so closely on the emotions of its characters, it becomes instantly relatable.
Joel Egerton gives an outstanding performance but it’s Kelvin Harris Jr who really shines here. His subtle and discerning portrayal of a teenager growing up in a changed world is perfectly executed. His struggle around his father’s increasing lack of empathy and his anxieties around his own lends itself to the film’s subject of what it is to be human.
Sharing similarities with Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2017), and John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) but with a much more understated and nuanced approach. However, the message in the end is the same: when shit goes down, the real monsters, are people.
Although It Comes at Night has the potential to vex some viewers who will be looking for clear answers to the smorgasbord of possibilities and questions that the film brings up, Shults’ second feature is a prolific example of the evolution of the horror genre as it trades in its cheap jumps and blood spattered walls for a much smarter and unsettling look into what we’re really afraid of.