The scari­est of ex­pec­ta­tions

Trey Ed­ward Shults cre­ates ter­ror in the shad­ows of a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic hide­away


“It Comes at Night,” a beau­ti­ful bum­mer of a hor­ror movie writ­ten and di­rected by Trey Ed­ward Shults, un­folds dur­ing the out­break of an air­borne ill­ness that has dec­i­mated hu­man­ity and driven a fam­ily of four into the wilder­ness.

The stakes are high, the losses se­vere. In the open­ing scene the fam­ily’s old­est mem­ber (played by David Pendle­ton), his body racked with dis­ease, gets a teary, apolo­getic farewell from his daugh­ter, Sarah (Car­men Ejogo), shortly be­fore her hus­band, Paul (Joel Edger­ton), wheels him out­side and puts a bul­let in his brain.

The killing is treated as an act of mercy, but Shults, the prodi­giously tal­ented 28year-old film­maker who made his de­but with last year’s “Kr­isha,” re­fuses to let his char­ac­ters off the hook that eas­ily. The gas masks that Paul and Sarah are wear­ing early on make it dif­fi­cult to tell them apart or un­der­stand their muf­fled speech, pro­duc­ing an alien­like ef­fect that is both dis­ori­ent­ing and re­veal­ing. In their des­per­a­tion to sur­vive, the movie seems to sug­gest, these peo­ple have al­ready lost some crucial mea­sure of their hu­man­ity.

Soon the masks come off, and we get to know Paul, Sarah and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), as they go about the tough busi­ness of ev­ery­day sur­vival. Along with their mutt, Stan­ley, they have taken refuge in a ram­shackle house in a for­est a long way from civ­i­liza­tion. They keep the win­dows boarded up, the door locked and their firearms at the ready, lest they be dis­cov­ered by out­siders who might want to raid their dwin­dling sup­ply of wa­ter and ra­tions — or, worse, who might be in­fected with the dis­ease.

One night they are sur­prised by a non-hos­tile in­truder named Will (Christo­pher Ab­bott), who claims to be seek­ing help for his wife, Kim (Ri­ley Keough), and their toddler son, An­drew (Grif­fin Robert Faulkner), who are stay­ing sev­eral miles away. Paul roughs Will up at first, trust­ing nei­ther his in­ten­tions nor his story, but in Edger­ton’s pre­cisely judged per­for­mance, we see the de­cency and com­pas­sion flick­er­ing be­neath his gruff au­thor­i­tar­ian ve­neer. When it turns out that Will and his fam­ily have food to spare, Paul and Sarah re­al­ize the wis­dom of pool­ing their re­sources and war­ily in­vite them to move in.

For a while the mood light­ens, as both par­ties ad­shot just to the sit­u­a­tion and en­joy the com­pany and con­ver­sa­tion of new friends. But the idyll can­not last; nor can it keep sus­pi­cion and anx­i­ety from mounting in close quar­ters. The print of Pi­eter Bruegel the El­der’s “The Tri­umph of Death” hang­ing in Travis’ bed­room may of­fer a sub­lim­i­nal com­men­tary on the hor­rors tran­spir­ing in the out­side world, but they turn out to be no match for the demons within.

The stark, somber story bears echoes of ev­ery­thing from Cor­mac McCarthy’s “The Road” to Ge­orge Romero’s splat­terific zom­bie epics (“Night of the Liv­ing Dead” looms par­tic­u­larly large here), but what sets “It Comes at Night” apart from those post-apoc­a­lyp­tic fore­bears is its rad­i­cal nar­ra­tive econ­omy. We learn al­most noth­ing about where the char­ac­ters are (the film was near Wood­stock, N.Y.), the lives they left be­hind or the grim cir­cum­stances that brought them to this wood­land hide­away. As he did in “Kr­isha,” Shults avoids the con­ven­tional trap of ex­po­si­tion, re­ly­ing in­stead on his strik­ing com­mand of the medium to evoke the in­ner life of a fam­ily un­der ex­traor­di­nar­ily bleak cir­cum­stances.

But if “Kr­isha” was a har­row­ing psy­chodrama ren­dered in a splin­tery John Cas­savetes syn­tax, “It Comes at Night” por­trays a dif­fer­ent kind of break­down, one etched in dim light and im­pla­ca­ble shad­ows. At times the cin­e­matog­ra­pher Drew Daniels seems to take his ex­pres­sive cues from Car­avag­gio, bathing the ac­tors in thick walls of black­ness that are il­lu­mi­nated only by the glim­mer of flash­lights and lanterns. The oc­ca­sional burst of eerie, hal­lu­ci­na­tory im­agery aside, ev­ery op­por­tu­nity for cheap jolts and jump scares is scrupu­lously avoided.

The hor­ror rises from a deeper, sub­tler place, which makes it all the harder to shake off. Shults is un­usu­ally attentive to group dy­nam­ics, par­tic­u­larly in the way he brings out the per­spec­tive of the teenage Travis, sen­si­tively played by Harrison as a young man whose bur­geon­ing sex­ual cu­rios­ity and re­bel­lious streak are be­com­ing ever harder for the house’s walls to con­tain.

There are mo­ments in “It Comes at Night” — a scene of Travis and Will bond­ing while chop­ping wood, a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Travis and Kim that feels both in­no­cent and flir­ta­tious — that seem pre­pared to send the movie spin­ning off in an un­pre­dictable and melo­dra­matic di­rec­tion. But these pos­si­bil­i­ties are can­celed out by a rig­or­ously bleak and pes­simistic end­ing that lives up to the fa­tal­ism of the movie’s premise, con­firm­ing your worst sus­pi­cions about the evil that men and women can do in the name of sur­vival.

The fi­nal mo­ments of “It Comes at Night” go be­yond the usual stan­dards of hor­ror-movie bleak­ness to achieve an al­most un­watch­able cru­elty — a pow­er­ful ac­com­plish­ment that also feels, in this con­text, like a lim­i­ta­tion. The world, we’re re­minded, is an ir­re­deemably aw­ful place, and its peo­ple are scarcely bet­ter. It’s hard to ar­gue with that con­clu­sion, even if it ul­ti­mately feels more like a de­cree than an hon­est dis­cov­ery.


Eric McNatt A24

TRAVIS (KELVIN HARRISON JR.) is part of a fam­ily that is strug­gling to sur­vive an out­break of a dev­as­tat­ing air­borne ill­ness.

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