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Family Matters

In ‘It Comes at Night,’ a devastating plague provides the horror, but it’s the relationships that make the film memorable

(A24)
(A24)

It Comes at Night opens on the face of a dying man. That’s no spoiler: It’s immediately clear that he’ll be dead within a few minutes. We can already hear the telltale rattle in his breath and see hints of devastating lesions all over his body. These are his last moments. After this, his remaining relatives will take him out back, shoot him in the head, and burn his body, quickly and without deliberation, as if they’ve done this type of thing before. For now, they, and we, study the textures of his withered face, trying to find a speck of sense or recognition in the man’s wandering gaze. It’s awful — all the more so for being so intimate. From behind a gas mask, the voice of his daughter, Sarah, softly repeats, "You can let go." You sense that he hears her, and that he indeed lets go.

This is how you stop a plague: with precise, impersonal violence and a willingness to wield that violence against even the people you love — but especially the ones you don’t. It Comes at Night, which opens this week, tells the story of a family trying to survive the aftermath of some unknown event — we never really know what, though some things are clear. There’s a fatal virus. It shows symptoms within a day and is contagious. It’s wiped out seemingly everyone else. We’re far enough into this devastation, when the movie starts, for there to be no electricity or running water. The family at the movie’s center — Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — has repurposed their home into a bunker, with boarded windows, a homemade water filtration system, and strict rationing of food.

The rest is unclear. We know they fear this plague, whatever it is. But we also sense they fear something else — the "It" of the movie’s title, maybe. They protect themselves against it with a small arsenal of guns. They’re deeply wary of strangers, to the point that they never go out into the woods alone. And they don’t go out at night.

It Comes at Night is being called a horror movie. I’ll roll with that, but it’s a little misleading. Certainly the movie has its scares, starting with its premise, and in the hands of its 28-year-old writer and director, Trey Edward Shults, every scene is hyperinfused with uncertainty and an eerily emphatic sense of mood. Without electricity, the home is pitch black, save the flares of light the characters use to get around. Sometimes the light catches old family photos and trinkets, and the vestiges of a prior life come blinking into view, quick as a flash. You can hear seemingly everything — every crick of the floorboards.

You wouldn’t want to go peeping around any corners at night without a weapon, is what I’m saying. The characters are afraid of that dark; thus, so are we. But thinking this is a horror movie has a way of making you wait for the other shoe to drop — for the movie to get outright scary, for someone to show up with the answers. Those answers never really come. As the movie’s opening scene has already tried to tell us, the plague is the premise for something much less sensational, but possibly richer. Shults has made a movie about family bonds: the forces that buoy them up and, more urgently, the forces trying to shake them.

The plot is simple. One night, a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the family’s home. He saw the boarded-up windows, he later says, and thought it was abandoned. He claims to have a wife and son of his own. More importantly, he claims to have food: goats, chickens, and more. Paul and Sarah initially agree to hold him captive, but when it’s clear he might be telling the truth, they decide to retrieve the rest of his family. Really, they’re in it for the goats and chickens — meat at last! — but the extra hands around the house are helpful, to say nothing of the extra muscle for holding down the fort.

(A24)
(A24)

These are people who aren’t equipped to live like this. They try to prepare themselves for the worst with rules and routine, fashioning a new normalcy out of so much devastation, but they never quite look natural with guns in their hands. Paul was previously a history teacher, and as played by the always-compelling Edgerton, that sense of gentle intelligence remains, even as it’s been hardened over with fear for his family. "I don’t need to tell you but: You can’t trust anybody but family," he tells his son. It’s a premise ready-made for conflict: a plague, a bunker, guns, and fear of the unknown. Better yet, it’s ready-made for paranoia; you’d be right to think of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a movie as memorable for the cult of fear and suspicion it produces in its characters as it is for the actual monster.

Shults leans into this idea. His images — always moving, always creeping — make the whole movie feel unstable. It’s a strategy we’ve seen from Shults before. He’s new to the scene — It Comes at Night is only his second feature-length film — but his first movie, Krisha, one of the better releases from last year, visited some of the same questions, with similar methods. Krisha is about an estranged mother who comes home for Thanksgiving to see her family for the first time in 10 years. It’s about the hilarity that ensues (including a devastating turkey mishap that I still haven’t been able to shake) — but really, it’s memorable for milking every scene for unanswered questions, unspoken slights, and quiet resentments. There, as in his new movie, the camera glides, constantly, toward and past the characters, heightening the sense of irresolution. It’s a little creepy, and a little sad, which is very much the point.

It’s no wonder Shults turned to the actual horror genre: He basically made a horror movie out of one family’s Thanksgiving. "I think a lot of horror that I love, and that appeals to me," Shults recently told Consequence of Sound, "is horror amongst people, and what something does to a group of people or a certain situation." He cites classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, movies as much about zombies and possession as they are about social behavior. (The Shining is an immediate influence. Travis, the son, has nightmares that seem to verge on premonitions. They’re exciting; Shults doesn’t make nearly enough of them.) Each film lends itself to allegory, but their terror is almost too specific to seem like a ready-made proxy for anything else. It Comes at Night is similar. Is a modern plague, in a book or a movie, ever really just a plague? Maybe not, but to his credit, Shults resists the temptation to make his movie feel broad by way of history. He deepens the premise, instead, by pulling us inward, toward the glances and silences that distinguish some relationships from others, one family from another.

That pays off when things come to a head, as they inevitably must. It’s what makes the movie exciting, and it’s better than the elements that make this a horror movie. The moodiness of the movie eventually comes off as a crutch, as you realize just how rote the setup is, and how much richer the characters are than the circumstances that bring them together. Sometimes, we don’t need a spooky tracking shot or a violent dream-premonition; sometimes, we don’t need ambient music to dictate our fear. It is so much more thrilling, and revealing, to watch the characters talk, particularly given the chops of some of these actors. Riley Keough, who plays Will’s wife, Kim, stands out for the bundled-up mix of emotions she always wears on her face: nervous when comfortable, pleasant when uncertain. As was also true of her breakout turn in TV’s The Girlfriend Experience, her face is the key to some of the finest moments and images here; the sadness of a late-night chat between Kim and Travis will stick with me.

But the best image of all, the thing that will linger most in my memory, is that of a door: vibrant, red, and imposing, it’s the only way into and out of the house. Shults manages, accordingly, to give it a weirdly symbolic power, which is worth more than its weight in jump scares. The movie has its flaws. But one of Shults’s main triumphs is to get us to believe in the danger of the outside world as fiercely as his characters do. Another is getting us to believe in the characters themselves: their fears, their devastation. That’s powerful. And if the emotional pivots of Shults’s movie sometimes feel overfamiliar, it’s gratifying to watch his style try to evoke something new.