In writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, a soul-crushingly dark examination of human nature amid an invisible and unnatural threat, human life remains intact in but one house in the forest, one with a blazingly red door secured with heavy brass locks. This door, glistening with an attractive sheen at odds with the dull wood around it, is the only thing that separates a family from certain death. But survival also means sacrifice.
Mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), father Paul (Joel Edgerton) and 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) must wear gas masks when exiting the home to do their daily chores. Their voices seem far away and muffled, almost robotic. Shults (Krisha) never lets us see exactly what it is in the forest they’re so scared of, and he gives no clues as to whether whatever is terrorizing them is local or global. In lingering shots that stare into the trees, he suggests any number of wicked possibilities.
We know the result of coming into contact with whatever is out there — in the opening scene, Grandpa Bud (David Pendleton) is covered head to toe with Byzantium-purple sores, his irises glazed white, his mouth leaking hints of black blood; Shults is fond of the extreme close-up when his characters are most stressed and grotesque, rendering their pain inescapable. Before Bud completely “turns,” Paul and Travis wheel him out back, put a bullet in his head and burn the gasoline-soaked body, releasing an ink-black plume into the clear blue sky. This overkill stokes the tension: What the hell would happen if they didn’t immolate Grandpa?
Travis is plagued by nightmares, but, awake or zonked out, he is seemingly called to the red door. Night after restless night, he gingerly walks down the long, dark hallway — with only a rifle sight for light — as the vermillion wood seems to throb, almost beckoning Travis to step through to the other side.
Soon, the trio’s bubble of safety bursts when a stranger, Will (Christopher Abbott), breaks into the home, thinking it empty. Stoic Paul brutalizes Will and ties him to a tree outside overnight, so that Will can prove that he’s (a) not “sick” and (b) truly just there to find water for his own family. The next morning, Paul is presented with a deal he can’t turn down: Drive Will to retrieve his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and 4-year-old son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), and their food reserves, so that the two families can share their resources. Still, Paul remains tight-lipped and doesn’t trust Will, so their road trip is impossibly tense. In the rearview mirror, Paul eyes Will, having made him sit in the truck bed, nervous that the visitor is sick and only hiding it. In one long shot, Shults lets us spy on Will through Paul’s eyes as the truck rumbles on, and suddenly, every little facial tic or movement Will makes seems like it’s a clue to something. Like the unknown sickness, Paul’s paranoia is contagious.
When Kim and Andrew arrive, Travis is confronted with a beautiful young woman and a happy, playful family so unlike his own. Harrison delivers a quiet and gut-wrenching performance, the longing ever visible in his eyes as Travis sneaks into a crawlspace just to hear, through the vents, Will and Kim’s laughter.
Meanwhile, Travis’ only friend is his scruffy dog, Stanley, whose rhythmic panting scores nearly every scene he’s in. This stands out because most moments outdoors are stone-silent, save for that dog. As in every horror film with an animal, you watch in dread, wondering what its fate will be, and when that fate will arrive. Outside the Bible, an animal’s death doesn’t protect human life.
Though Sarah doesn’t get much screen time, her absence in the story may reveal some darker truths about what could happen when society breaks down. Here, traditional gender roles are subtly reinforced. At one point, Paul momentarily relaxes and brings Will into Bud’s vacant study to share a glass of celebratory whiskey. But Paul’s omission of the women from this moment, for me, carries just as much terror as anything coming from outside — what humanity will women lose when the world goes to hell?
But the heart and the soul of this story is Travis. I wanted to reach out and hold him when, during one of his insomniac trips to an empty kitchen cupboard, he runs into Kim and tells her he’s never kissed a girl. This admission hangs heavy in the air, both of them realizing that if he ever were to kiss a woman, to make love, to feel love, it would have to be with Kim. Travis is the only one of the group who can see the big picture, that it may be human nature that does them in before whatever is out there in the forest does. And with Paul’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude, every scene carries the possibility that it could all end right there. With It Comes at Night, Shults seems to suggest that if you have to slaughter a bunch of animals to persist, the life you get may not be worth it.