Paranoia, fear and tension abound in this latest “horror” offering from A24. I say “horror” but this is something else. To go in with a normal horror attitude and expectations will leave you feeling let down as this holds hardly any of the more travelled tropes of the genre. Ambiguity of who or what is the danger, never exposing or showing the actual threat, no explanations or exposition of where it came from or what it is or even why they do what they do to remain safe. All of these things, if you were expecting a normal genre horror, would drive you to distraction. And that is the beauty of this film.
It Comes at Night follows the trials and routines of a family as they attempt to ward off the effects and threat of a highly contagious disease as they protect themselves in their boarded up home.
Joel Edgerton particularly, but also Carmen Ejogo and Christopher Abbott bring the suspense and suspicion to the screen. Edgerton’s Paul is super careful, organised and regimented, controlling whatever he can and taking no risks. Abbott’s Will is played superbly, never quite revealing if he is trustworthy or not, keeping you guessing throughout. And it keeps you going even beyond the ending wondering what happens next? Kelvin Harrison Jr, as Paul’s 17-year old son Travis, is by far the most interesting character and also gets the most development in the entire film. And it is him, and not Paul, that the film gravitates around.
Narrow of scope, and not much in terms of character development would normally give a feeling of emptiness, or a missed opportunity but not so in this case. The focus on the nuclear family and then the interactions with the newcomers, and the atmospheric changes that come with it, are what this film is about. The intensity of the viewers gaze, everyone is under the microscope, being checked for the smallest change in appearance or behaviour. Again it is the never knowing, the fear for what is going to happen not what has happened that is the driving force behind this film, and I so much prefer that method than showing the exact threat, defining the thing that needs to be feared. It ultimately leads to a far more disturbing experience than numerous “scares”. That’s not to say that this film doesn’t have those, it does indeed and it employs them to maximum effect rather than signposting it.
With no big pay off or reveal this could be considered a let down but the bleakness of this film fits the narrative and tone superbly. This life is not a happy one, it is not living a life as much as it is avoiding a death. It brings to mind the question of why they are continuing trying to avoid their fate if it is this hard with no hope for survival, no chance of any normalcy. Yes, this film is not one to watch whilst feeling a little down!
Trey Edward Shults has directed this with aplomb. The pacing is slow but never ponderous, keeping the story moving whilst also building tension, suspense and intrigue. Having the camera start off close before moving away with the expansion of their world highlights this development before everything compresses back on itself in the tense and terse finale. Drew Daniels’ cinematography works really well in the context of this film, mixing the darks and the confines of the house with the wide open forest surrounding them. With a lot of night-time filming he has managed to focus your attention on the characters, their lamp-light spotlighting them against the darkness with nothing else to look at, again narrowing the gaze and directing your attention to what he wants you to look at.
If you watched the excellent The Witch (also from A24) and liked it then you are probably going to be in the camp of enjoying (or at least appreciating) this film. Knowing nothing about this film is probably the way to get the most out of it. No expectations of what will happen and you will see this film for what it is: A wonderful example of how paranoia and suspense can be used to drive a film.