After writer and director Trey Edward Shults‘s debut film, Krisha, reframed a traditional family holiday dinner into a horrifying monument to the ways in which good intentions and long-festering conflicts can tear a family apart, I was immediately on board to see where this fresh new talent was going, and we didn’t have to wait long for It Comes At Night to arrive on the scene as the director’s first widely distributed release. It pains me to report, however, that It Comes At Night is far less than a worthy successor to Krisha, even if it is a modestly effective thriller in its own right and on its own terms. I only wish those terms didn’t feel so modest.
In the wake of an apocalyptic outbreak of disease that has presumably destroyed civilization as we know it, Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) make due surviving in their rural home. One night, a stranger, Will (Christopher Abbott), attempts to break into their home, and after being captured he promises to trade some of his own family’s food for the family’s water. The families decide to pool their resources, so that Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their toddler Andrew move in to the spare bedroom.
So, essentially, It Comes At Night is a scaled down version of a season of The Walking Dead sans zombies. Rather than metaphorical families coming together for mutual survival and an attempt to rebuild society, Shults’s film is about biological families at constant tension struggling just to live with one another. From moment to moment, the fear and paranoia are palpable, especially as it becomes more apparent that Paul is only barely keeping his patriarchal sense of control together and Travis is starting to become attached to these new influences in his life. The ultimate tension is between preserving familial identity while also attempting to survive with help from outside one’s immediate social circle.
But these are concepts of toxic human tribalism have been beaten to death by similarly Hobbesian post-apocalyptic fiction, so what makes It Comes At Night any different? The unfortunate answer is not a whole lot besides the fact that the external force keeping the players confined is much more nebulous and relatively unimportant. As effectively as It Comes At Night‘s themes are conveyed through the terse interactions of its families, the ultimate conclusion it comes to is neither novel nor unexpected. It’s a case of been-there-done-that storytelling, broken up by try-hard abstract dream sequences that provide the majority of the film’s horror imagery. It’s also painfully obnoxious that for such a small cast, the two female characters are afforded no dimension beyond being wives, mothers, and objects of sexual desire. That characterization is consistent with the archetypes each character is supposed to embody, but the male characters are able to have personality beyond the stereotypical expectations of their sex, and the difference is palpable.
This isn’t to say that It Comes At Night is a bad film, but it is a disappointing one. It’s good at establishing a tense atmosphere and keeping its tension elevated for the entirety of its runtime, but the culmination of its machinations is trite compared to the promise it shows early on. It’s a fine film for what it aims to be. It just could have been so much more.