There’s a term I’ve heard bandied about for films like It Comes At Night. Post-horror, I think it’s called. If so, I feel it’s an apt way to describe the A24 production, which is directed by Trey Edward Shults and features Joel Edgerton as the only real recognisable lead.
It Comes At Night is not the film it was marketed to be. There are virtually no jump scares – instead the plot is focused about a post-apocalyptic melting pot as two families try to survive in the same house. Tension is constantly present throughout, as well as a creeping sense of dread – but no traditional horror tropes here. It’s more of a psychological thriller, really.
The tale begins as a family story about Joel Edgerton’s Paul, his wife Sarah and son Travis eeking out survival, constantly paranoid about a virus or disease that causes virulent black marks on the body and bile from the mouth. Somewhat surprisingly considering Edgerton’s star power, the action is mainly centred around Travis – who is awoken most nights by insomnia and ends up exploring the house and outside, to the audience’s sickly anticipation.
I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler to say that there may not be any skeletons, monsters or boogeymen lurking out there. Instead, the film is intentionally ambiguous about every night sequence. Are we seeing Travis’ reality, or his nightmares? When does one end and the other begin?
The discovery of an intruder prompts the first jolt of action, as the family is forced to decide if they trust this man, who calls himself Will and claims he has a thirsty family 50 miles away. The beauty of the film here is that we feel Paul’s distrust of Will – given the same clues and missteps that Paul sees. However, if you think of the plot from Will’s point of view, you can quickly see that Paul himself may seem highly untrustworthy and violent.
And this film is violent. It’s a high stakes world they’re in, where trust equals death and action must be taken immediately. Upon being ambushed, Paul and Will dispatch their attackers with the desperate, brutal efficiency of men who have killed before – and will again.
As the families come to live together and stakes heighten, the tension is ramped up even higher. Every move each family makes puts you in a more uncomfortable position, and Travis’ dreams/reality get more frightening.
It’s wrong to spoil the plot, but one criticism I’ve read of the film is that it doesn’t resolve in a satisfactory way. I couldn’t disagree more – I love the ambiguous tension and the lack of context. We don’t know what the virus is, how it works, how it’s caught, why there are so few people or even whether Will was ever telling the truth. Worse still, we don’t really know what It Comes At Night alludes to. However, with Travis the only character awake at night time, I think it’s a clear message about nightmares, suspicion and dread. They come at night – and they come thick and fast in this film. If you’ve got the ability to appreciate a film for what it is, without needing to know more, this is the post-horror for you.
Final Thoughts – A terrific exercise in tension, pacing and mistrust. The performances are all fantastic, all very believable. The dread is palpable – I had to remind myself I was watching a film at times.
Watch it if you liked:
The Survivalist & The VVitch