A tense post-apocalyptic thriller starring Australia’s Joel Edgerton, It Comes at Night is a creepy, claustrophobic descent into (justifiable) paranoia in the wake of a plague-like outbreak that has seemingly decimated the human population and remains uncontained. This is a story about a family teetering on the edge of a collapsed civilisation in which distrust, desperation and determination are the cornerstones of their survival. Written and directed by Trey Edward Schults, whose only previous feature is the award-winning Krisha, this is a gruelling, unsettling survival drama in which the merest oversight or lack of adherence to the strict rules and routines (always travel in pairs, never go out at night) can have catastrophic consequences for patriarch Paul (Edgerton) and his family.
The film opens with an introduction to the dangers being faced by the family – which also comprises Paul’s wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenaged son Calvin (Kelvin Harrison Jnr) – when Paul executes his infected father-in-law and burns his body in a shallow grave in order to avoid any further spread of the virus. Their remote woodland home-cum-prison is boarded up and the only access is via a locked door at the end of a narrow corridor. The lack of light within the labyrinthine layout of the house creates an atmosphere of foreboding; lamps and torches flickering in the gloom and offering the merest morsels of illumination. The world outside the house looks normal enough and the fact that the threat is an invisible one leaves you questioning whether any remotely odd behaviours – such as Calvin’s vivid dreams – are more than just a consequence of the horrors he has witnessed. After a stranger tries to break into the house, Paul is forced to consider joining forces with Will (Christopher Abbott), offering shelter to him, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew, in exchange for the valuable resources they can provide, such as food and livestock.
Intentionally or otherwise, It Comes at Night has elements that seem to draw from great films that have come before it, such as George Romero’s Night of Living Dead, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and John Boorman’s Deliverance. This carefully constructed world is one of isolation, suspicion and an ever-present threat and tensions build in the house when it appears as though the various precautions in place have been breached, putting everybody at risk. Unlike, say, 10 Cloverfield Lane, the narrative tension is not based on whether or not the threat is real but whether or not it can be stopped and, with no back story that explains the origins of the contagion or how it is transmitted, we don’t know if keeping it at bay is even possible. Heck, even the family have no idea where this virus came from or how much of civilisation remains.
Combined with an unsettling score from composer Brian McOmber, Karen Murphy’s production design creates an atmosphere of distorted menace that makes for uncomfortable viewing. Edgerton and Ejogo make a believable couple trying to cope as best they can given the circumstances in which they find themselves, while Abbott and Keough are also very effective as a couple who may, or may not, pose a threat to the sanctity and security that Paul has created for his family. However, 22-year-old newcomer Harrison Jr is quite remarkable as Calvin, a young man having to cope with coming of age in the most oppressive circumstances. This is a bleak story about ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances, and it is somehow both poignant and alarming as they are forced to take drastic measures to ensure their safety. The cast perform brilliantly, both individually and collectively and, with a constant unease lurking beneath the surface of every action and interaction, It Comes at Night keeps you interested in the plight of our protagonists and makes for a riveting experience.