It Comes at Night, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, is a film that is tense, atmospheric and forever playing with your expectations, though the way it plays with your expectations may hinder some peoples enjoyment of the film. You see, I’m of the mind-set that general audiences will struggle with this film; not finding it to be the all-out scare-fest that they are hoping it to be, but for me this film was exactly what I was hoping for, and more. But let’s find out through this review if this is a film for you, while also giving me the chance to gush about it, ever so slightly. So on to the review we go.
Paul – played by Joel Edgerton – lives in a secluded house in the woods with his wife, Sarah – played by Carmen Ejogo – and their son, Travis – played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. They do so because of an unexplained outbreak which has seen people becoming infected and then dying. However their seclusion is disturbed by the arrival of Will – played by Christopher Abbott – a man looking for supplies to help look after his wife, Kim – played by Riley Keough – and their son, Andrew – played by Griffin Robert Faulkner. Paul reluctantly decides to help him and soon the new family end up staying and helping them at the house. As you can imagine, the nature of their situation soon results in distrust and hostile acts, but who will you side with? Who will you trust?
It Comes at Night was a film that completely messed with my expectations. From the single trailer that I saw quite some time ago, I had a particular feeling of what the film was going to be and I was interested to check it out. Well, that initial feeling was way off the mark and I’m glad it was, because what I got instead was a much more intriguing and much more engaging film.
So much of the fear you experience, comes from the atmosphere that it has existing throughout it. There is this tension; a feeling of unease that constantly commands your senses. It was almost as if the film was playing with me; prodding at me slightly, to see how I would react. It at all times was in control and it at all times had my attention.
But it is also a film that challenges you. It wants you to play its game. It wants you to guess what is going on; to pick up on clues and try to piece together all the little hints about the world and the characters and then begin to form your own hypothesis. Again, it was an experience that at all times felt engaging. It wasn’t just an experience where I’m expected to passively sit there and jump at some random noise every so often. No, this is a film where you are as much a part of figuring out the truth as the characters are.
However I will say that it would have perhaps behoved the film to be a little forthcoming with some answers. A lot is left unanswered and I think it’s only fair that the film had given some hint as to what was going on. Now I’m not saying it had to be something overly overt – just something would have been nice. Because I think it’s reasonable to feel disappointed or even annoyed at the lack of explanation. Just because it wasn’t a problem for me doesn’t mean it won’t completely ruin the experience for someone else. When leaving the cinema, I was made aware of this fact by the mixed responses that I heard. A group of guys sitting in front of me where raving about how much the enjoyed it and where then throwing theories back and forth with one another. Whereas a group to the left of me were complaining that the film was slow and didn’t offer anything at all. Right there I had a clear range of response to this film, which I found to be insightful when considering my overall review.
Anyway, I want to now bring my focus onto the characters now. It Comes at Night didn’t offer characters that were necessarily layered in presentation, nor did it ever spend much time developing them into fully realised individuals, but what it did do was create an environment that fostered some really tense filled interactions between the main characters. In these moments it was like playing detective where you were listening to everything said and trying to pick up on if someone is telling the truth or not. I’m usually someone who likes characters to be explored to their fullest, but in the context of this film, I felt it actually benefited the narrative by not going that deep. There was enough that I felt I had a good enough understanding of everyone and the roles they played, and then much like the story, the rest was left up to my interpretation.
Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a perfect example of this. There is clearly something wrong with him, though I’m not sure what. But what that did was feed into the greater mystery of it all. Was he the most dangerous of them all or was he simply a young man who has been unfortunately affected by his environment and his overbearing father. I’m not entirely sure but for me that was the fun of this film; figuring it all out in my head, from the clues given to me by the film.
These are two families who are now living in a world where food, water and shelter are scare. They have to work together, they have to live together and they have to be able to trust one another. As you can imagine, things don’t go the way they’d probably hoped it would and conflict inevitably happens and when it does, it is in those moments that you tense up and use the knowledge you’ve collected to decide who’s in the right (if any of them).
Interestingly, by the end of the film, I was still not 100% sure that I had trusted the right people. This is not a film where there is a clear delineation between good and bad. These are everyday people with needs, with flaws and with unpredictable ways of reacting. It felt like the film wanted me to take part and participate, which made me want to pay attention. And I loved that. It Comes at Night felt like more than just a horror film where I was supposed to sit idle and simply be scared of something every so often.
And the film also boasts an interesting plot where answers are scarce and because of that, your level of fear is almost always at a constant high. You are unsure of what has happened to the world and you are also unsure of what is out there in the woods – if anything. That feeling of not knowing, and the light spattering of things that you do know, mean you experience something that burrows into you and makes you want to watch. You want to know more, you need to know more and writer, director, Trey Edward Shults knows that and uses those feelings to his full advantage. It’s smart storytelling and smart filmmaking on his part, for sure.
But this does bring me to the thing that I think could hinder this film, and that is with how different this film is and with the type of horror experience that the trailers suggest you’re going to get. To be frank, I think a general audience won’t be as enamoured with the film as I was. And I feel I should refer back to my earlier point about how some people in the audience around me loved it while others were confused and bored as support for this next point.
It Comes at Night is quite unconventional when compared to modern horror films and because of that, there is a chance it might put most people off. This isn’t a film where there are jump scares every few minutes; there isn’t a specific monster that prowls the woods and is constantly jumping out at you. This is a much more psychological horror than it is a gory, jump-scare horror. A lot of people going in expecting one thing and then getting something very different may actually find themselves quite bored.
Unfortunately, more recent horror films have instilled bad habits within general audiences (films like, Paranormal Activity or the recent Blair Witch remake, being perfect examples). People expect to jump at things and then giggle with their friends when they do, but the things they’re jumping at are empty scares, just things designed to scare you in that moment but not actually have any bearing on the overall film. Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in wanting those types of horror experiences, it’s just that it’s at no point the one you will have in this film. It Comes at Night just isn’t like that. It is much more deliberate and focused in the type of experience it wants to deliver, and for me; it is the type of psychological horror experience I like. There is thought to it, there is purpose and there is some damn clever filmmaking techniques employed in achieving those feelings.
And let’s talk about the filmmaking, because writer, director, Trey Edward Shults shows that he is very talented at achieving certain feelings all thorough the practicality of filmmaking. For example, the placement and the focus of the camera is something that creates a very claustrophobic, intense atmosphere. A lot of the time the camera is as close-up as it can be, seeming to almost invade the personal space of the actors. Similar to them, you have little room to breathe and you are at all times very, very close to the unsettling feeling of it all.
But there is also purpose behind the placement of the camera. Much information is given simply though what the camera is looking at – particular imagery suggesting things to come, being an example. And that is something that if you’re not paying attention to, you will certainly miss, which in turn does rob you of what could be some helpful information. But I personally like that the artistic nature of the film was not stepped on, in favour of blatant exposition. But beyond simply the camera there is also how the film is lit. Practical lighting is utilised to light nearly every scene, which gives the film a much more grounded, intense feeling (something that helps strengthen the already strong atmosphere of the film) and it also means that you see everything that the characters see – nothing more and nothing less. There might be something lurking in the dark and if there is, well you’ll have to wait until the only lantern that in the room is moved to reveal it. It’s a great way of giving the film a much more realistic feeling and makes the scary situation feel all the more real.
Everything in, It Comes at Night is pointed towards attaining a particular state of mind from the audience, and it achieves it perfectly in my mind. Pretty much from the beginning of this film, I was under its control and was fully committed to being a part of the journey that it wanted to take me on. And when those credits rolled, I let out a sigh of relief and then began to smile (ever so slightly) at the experience that I had absolutely enjoyed.
Sitting there watching the film; noticing out of the corner of my eye as a someone was clamped onto their partner, worrying about what was behind the door, or having there be a deafening silence (in a reasonably full cinema) after a particularly disturbing moment had played out. Moments like these, coupled with the film itself, made for a film watching experience that I loved – the type that is the reason I love to go to the cinema. Sometimes you need a film like, It Comes at Night to remind you why going to a room full of other people and taking in a film is still something worth doing – especially after sitting through so many blockbuster films recently.
It Comes at Night left me thinking about it long after I had left the cinema. Mulling over questions in my head, trying to figure out the mysteries it presented; wondering if I had supported the right group of characters or if I had aligned myself with the wrong people. I love when a film can do that; stick with you and keep you thinking about it.
So I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m going to recommend, It Comes at Night. I don’t think there’s anything else for me to say at this point, other than please make the time to go see this film and hopefully enjoy it as much as I did.
I would absolutely love to know what you thought of the film and also my review. So please leave any opinions or feedback in the comments down below. If you’re interested you can keep in the know on when I post new stuff by following my blog directly and following me over on Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. I want to thank you for taking the time to read my review and I hope you liked it enough to return.