I feel compelled to write about the audience I was in midst of when I saw the film It Comes at Night. The second feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night is being positioned as a horror film for promotional purposes. That’s entirely fair. All the elements are in place, including a constantly mounting sense of dread, allusions to a devastating and unexplained phenomenon that has ravaged the populace, and a wary appraisal of the intrinsic darkness of desperate people. And yet the film is primarily notable for its colossal restraint more than its vivid shocks. In the movie house where I sat, that led to a lot of agitation and restlessness.
Even as I concede some amount of understanding of the idling disgruntlement of my fellow ticket-buyers — Shults does occasionally play his narrative hand with more patience than is wholly advisable — the screening mostly served as a sad reminder of the sizable divide between what the typical horror movie fan wants and what the more artistically-inclined genre filmmakers are likely to give them. There is a lot to admire in It Comes at Night, but I found myself depressed by the overall experience
The film largely takes place in a large house, isolated in the middle of the woods. Some sort of highly contagious disease has taken its toll on society, leaving Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their seventeen-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) anxious in their remote homestead. Their precarious feeling of safety is disrupted by the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbot), who breaks into their house, claiming he thought it was abandoned and he was only looking for supplies for his own family that has thus far survived the outbreak.
With cunning psychological insight, Shults lays out the suspicions and tripwire high emotions that the characters have, with any slip in caution potentially leading to a terrible death. At its best, the script delivers scenes that raise doubts but ultimately reveal little. Nearly every potential infraction can be read as an innocent act. It’s a razor thin line between prudence and paranoia.
The pieces of It Comes at Night that the rest of the audience rejected are precisely what make it intriguing and fulfilling for me. Even though the communal experience of being in the movie theater can sometimes elevate a work — something that’s come through most clearly of late with the particular empowerment baked into Hidden Figures and Wonder Woman — my task is to assess what flickers in front of me, not the vibe generated by those seated in my vicinity. It Comes at Night is compelling, sly, and artful. To be fair, the evidence suggests that results may vary.