Rarely have I been so ticked off by an American horror feature as I was by It Comes at Night, an arty new film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Shults’s script is undercooked and his direction is needlessly mannered; moreover, neither the writing or the visual approach is interesting enough to transcend the familiarity of the story, about a middle-class family’s efforts to survive in a postapocalyptic United States. Shults’s ideas are hand-me-downs from George A. Romero’s works and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, both of which deal with themes of individualism and societal construction with more nuance—and far less pretension—than he does. But after reading some positive reviews of It Comes at Night (in particular, A.O. Scott’s in the New York Times), I was ready to reconsider it. On a return viewing, perhaps I could look past Shults’s distracting style and appreciate his psychological approach to character and his consideration of social control.
I did find some things to admire when I saw It Comes at Night for a second time. I was particularly impressed by Shults’s characterization of Joel Edgerton’s character, Paul. The film is so effective at drawing viewers into the mysteries surrounding this man that it succeeds as a character study where it largely fails as a horror movie. Paul is a husband and father living in a woodland home after some vaguely defined event has caused civilization to collapse. He’s vigilant, armed to the teeth, and quietly obsessed with maintaining order, keeping his family under a strict schedule so they can remain productive during this chaotic time. Paul is shockingly good at protecting them and rationing their resources. As It Comes at Night proceeds, you may wonder if he hadn’t been preparing for societal breakdown for years before it actually happened. There are no monsters in It Comes at Night (despite a few suggestions that the woods may be full of the walking dead), but Paul comes close—his mania for order makes him a frightening patriarch, and one can sense the psychological toll his behavior has exerted on his wife and teenage son.
One first recognizes the extent of Paul’s mania when he responds to the situation of a stranger entering his home early in It Comes at Night. He awakens when he hears someone trying to open a locked door to the building. Paul then holds the man at gunpoint, takes him outside, and ties him to a tree with a bag over his head for the next day. While the other man writhes in agony, Paul stakes out the area like a hunter to see if there are any others coming his way. He performs these actions with cold impassion, much like he maintains order at home. Edgerton plays the character with eerie restraint, conveying how certain Paul is in his ways. Shults raises the possibility that Paul may be overreacting to the situation and taking sadistic pleasure in his treatment of the stranger, though Edgerton is careful not to betray much emotion. Perhaps his actions are necessary precautions in a lawless world.
When Paul determines that the stranger, Will, doesn’t pose a threat, he agrees to take in the other man and his family. Shults depicts the transformation of the two men’s relationship in a complicated long take that marks one of the film’s most pretentious moments. Beginning with a slow, semicircular move around the back of Paul’s head, the scene progresses with the camera moving back and forth between Paul and Will, ultimately putting both men in medium shot as they call a truce and agree to trust each other. Edgerton and Christopher Abbott, who plays Will, maintain a fascinating sense of tension as the men negotiate their relationship, yet the camera movement draws attention away from the drama. It’s as though the camera is playing its own role in the scene, one divorced from the story. (Indeed I was too distracted by the filmmaking on a first viewing to appreciate the performances or even what was going on.) This sequence sums up the basic conflict between form and content that comes to overwhelm It Comes at Night.
The conflict wouldn’t feel so prominent if the film’s story gave viewers more to chew on, but Shults’s minimalist narrative only teases at ideas. The second half of It Comes at Night centers on the tension that arises in Paul’s home after Will and his family move in. The two families attempt to trust each other, but Paul is so cold that no real sense of camaraderie blossoms. Paul’s son, Travis, develops a rapport with the new family, and one senses that Paul might feel jealous over this, but Shults doesn’t provide enough detail for us to be certain. This isn’t the only thing that the writer-director stays vague about. It isn’t clear what caused society to collapse, what the world is like beyond the woods where the characters live, or what happens exactly to characters who catch the deadly disease that everyone’s so afraid of. One could argue that the movie’s ambiguities serve to foreground the characterization of Paul and the interpersonal dynamics among the other characters. Yet they also have the effect of making the horror elements feel like mere window dressing on a half-baked narrative.
Without any precise sense of the film’s fictional world, Shults has only mood to generate suspense, and the mood isn’t all that interesting. Shults indulges in lots of slow-moving shots like the one described above; most of them call attention to themselves in the same fashion as that one does. Cinematographer Drew Daniels does some impressive work with minimal lighting sources, invoking a world where it’s always nighttime. Yet the action within this world remains vague, and the monotonously somber line readings prevent the dialogue from achieving any sense of dynamism. These stylistic flourishes have the effect of saying to the audience “Stop and think about this” regardless of whether It Comes at Night provides much to think about. I was still bothered by its sense of self-importance on a second viewing, and I don’t think that Edgerton’s performance or Shults’s observations of patriarchal control are enough to justify it.