Writer-director Trey Edward Shults, who tore out of the gate with 2016's startling, haunting, grievously underseen psychological stress-test "Krisha," has followed up his impressive debut feature with another story about an unraveling family. "It Comes at Night" is a great title, thick with frightening, portentous suggestion. It might be a little too
great, actually, promising more than what is ultimately offered. Sharing more similarities with 2015's quiet apocalyptic indie "Z for Zachariah
" than the film its teaser trailer and promotional materials most resemble, 2004's M. Night Shyamalan thriller "The Village
," the film certainly conjures an unsettling aura but does so at a deliberate tempo where its characters' emotional journey and insular world takes precedence over predictable genre tactics. If there is a disappointment in what has found its way to the screen, it is in a screenplay that doesn't go that extra mile to truly differentiate itself from a lot of similar movies about the same subject matter. Shults is a tremendous filmmaker, but his latest, while effective, lacks imagination on a conceptual level.
It's the end of the world as former history teacher Paul (Joel Edgerton) knows it, and he and his familywife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) do not feel fine. An unnamed epidemic has taken out most of the population, and once a person becomes infected there is only one outcome: certain death. With Travis' beloved grandfather having recently become the latest victim of this plague, their own mortality is an unavoidable reality which hangs over their heads. When stranger Will (Christopher Abbott) shows up at their door late one night, they are quick to protect themselves but ultimately take pity and agree to let him and his own down-and-out familyyoung wife Kim (Riley Keough) and toddler son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner)stay with them.
The disquieting pleasure of a film such as "It Comes at Night" lies in not knowing what is going to come next. While the basic narrative does not add up to as much as some viewers may hope, writer-director Trey Edward Shults' humanistic aims remain fast and true. He and cinematographer Drew Daniels are persuasive visualists, their fluid camerawork and atmospheric imagery putting one on edge even when not a lot is happening. One particular shot, opening on Renaissance painter Pieter Breughel's horrific 1562 tableaux The Triumph of Death
before moving assuredly down a darkened hallway toward a locked red door, is both fantastic and somehow evocatively fantastical. As doomed paranoia haunts Travis' dreams to the point where it is uncertain what is real and what is a figment of his dismayed unconscious, he and his family try to make the best of their wakeful hours. There is some laughter, some games, and some playful conversations to pass the time, because what good would being morose 24/7 do? And, when Paul apologizes for not allowing his son to continue searching for their missing dog and tells him they'll head out to look again at first light, Travis turns to thank him. He has no time to brood or hold grudges against his dad when any moment could be their last.
"It Comes at Night" will divide audiences with an ending that makes perfect sense but goes against the grain of what mainstream audiences will be expecting. Shults' refusal to provide much context for what is going on wavers between uncompromising and unsatisfying, while where he takes the story feels too familiar by half when more bold creativity could have turned a good film into a tremendous one. As is, this is a skillful, forlorn drama, its brand of horror exceedingly plausible. Joel Edgerton (2015's "The Gift
") leads a strong cast as Paul, fiercely trying to protect his family from a force beyond his control. He is well aware death is an inevitability, but he never imagined it could come in this way, under these circumstances. Isn't that always how it goes?