"It Comes At Night"—the sophomore release from "Krishna" director Trey Edward Shults and reliable indie production company A24—opens with a scene horrifying in its mundanity: The son-in-law and grandson of an elderly man infected with an unknown contagion euthanize and dispose of their family member. Paul (played by Joel Edgerton) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) wheel "Grampa" out to the woods while Sarah ("Alien: Covenant's" Carmen Ejogo) sits helplessly in her bedroom waiting for her father's mercy death. Words are said, a human body is incinerated unceremoniously in a dirt pit, and then they have dinner in excruciating silence. While ostensibly a "what waits in the dark?" scary movie, the true horrors of "It Comes at Night" lie well within the realm of the ordinary and everyday.
We're never given any specifics on the disease that has laid waste to the populace of "It Comes at Night," only that it causes the victim to develop fatal black sores on their body and our (four-, now three-member) family unit is fortified in an oddly cavernous cottage in the woods. Things become substantially more complicated when the family encounters Will (Christopher Abbott), who they imprison after a failed break-in attempt one night. Eventually, Paul and Sarah agree to allow Will, his wife, and their young child to join them in the home in exchange for shared resources. Paul's only condition is that they stick to groups of two during the day and that nobody goes out at night through the house's sole un-boarded doorway. Six people cooped up in a house for days without end riding out the end of the world—what could go wrong?
"It Comes at Night" tweaks the bog standard zombie outbreak movie in a few interesting ways. For one, it's not really a zombie movie at all. The infected are seemingly docile and infirm, posing only the threat of infection to others. The human-on-human-violence of the film never devolves into NRA-funded meathead propaganda and, instead, the firearms our paranoia-wracked cast cling to like safety blankets cause more problems than solutions. Further, the ominous "it" of the title is never explained or even glimpsed. The film's contractually mandated Doomed Movie Dog runs off and barks at something in the woods, but there's seemingly nothing there. Are teenage Travis' sleeplessness and increasingly grotesque nightmares the result of grief, or is there something more insidious at work? There are probably a couple good reads that could be made of all this but, refreshingly, nothing is spelled out to the audience.
Joel Edgerton has long been a great actor in the Michael Shannon shifty-eyed white guy maniac mold, and his performance as a history teacher turned squirrelly post-apocalypse gun dad is fittingly menacing and nuanced. Edgerton plays Paul as a man with no special gifts for survival besides a willingness to do whatever it takes to protect his own, whether that's ruthlessly detaining and torturing an intruder or killing a pair of survivors who lay siege to his pickup truck without a second thought. At one point, he offers Will a drink of his (now deceased) father-in-law's good whiskey, only for their gentle neighborly camaraderie to come screeching to a halt when Paul seemingly catches the man in a lie. While "The Walking Dead" relies on evil sadists wielding baseball bats to get across the monstrousness of how humans treat each other after the fall of decent society, paranoid Paul's escalating micro-aggressions toward his new guests are far more authentically sinister.
Although Edgerton is the standout performance of Shults' film, what makes "It Comes at Night" such a rock-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach, too-close-to-home horror movie is how it acknowledges the petty fascism that lurks within even the best people. Lonely (read: horny) teenage Travis means well, but his clumsy creepiness toward Will's wife Kim and his tendency to spy on his new housemates escalates an already stressful situation into outright violence. When Sarah trains a gun on the guests during a late night argument, her distraught face is obscured behind a gas mask that, for all we know, does nothing to protect her from infection and provides only a convenient emotional barrier. The struggle to hold onto even the pretense of civility is present in every scene of "It Comes at Night," most tellingly in the moments where Paul demands "are we cool?" of rival survival dad Will.