It Comes at Night isn’t your standard thriller. It’s patient, methodical and uneasy. This is the thriller equivalent of setting the timer on unnerving and letting it simmer for 97 nerve-wracking minutes. Maybe it’s best to envision this as an extreme more realistic and terrifying version of The Walking Dead with no Rick Grimes in sight.
Paul (Joel Edgerton, Black Mass) doesn’t fully know what’s out there but he knows the important facts. Exposure to those who are infected from some mysterious outbreak will quickly take its toll. The symptoms are painful and death is imminent. Most importantly, Paul isn’t going to let this threat harm his family any further.
The film opens on an ominous note as Paul, his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), and their son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison) are burying his father-in-law Bud (David Pendleton). We don’t know how Bud got infected, but Paul isn’t taking any more chances.
Bound in gas masks and gloves, Paul and Travis take care of Bud with a steady lookout for any problems. You get the sense they’ve had to do this before or at least have watched enough movies about infected/zombies to take every precaution. It’s a tough life, but Paul and his family have adjusted to thanks to his regimented and strict guidelines. The most important is never opening the red door to go in and out at night.
Those get tested when a man breaks in their home claiming to be searching for supplies for his family. Paul is right to be leery. Strangers don’t come knocking on the door these days and allowing Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to stay puts everything Paul has established at risk.
Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) pulls double duty as the director and screenwriter. Shults understands the scariest thing is his audience’s imagination. There’s no lumbering infested walking around or boogeyman waiting to pop out around the corner. Shults lets the viewer imagine the horror that awaits those unfortunate enough to get infested.
The occasional jump scares are effective and rattling thanks to Shults’ restraint in not overdoing them. Those fake outs aren’t necessary since Shults quickly establishes that constant sense of dread. You’re left never quite sure when to brace for the next scare and are left uneasy and impatient throughout.
Shults gets up uncomfortably close to the characters zooming in to their eyes and tight in on their faces. It’s another effective trick to maintain that ominous feeling. Limiting the audience’s view helps take away the control comfort level, which is further tested by Brian McOmber’s haunting score.
Without the usual horror/thriller gimmicks, Shults demands a lot out of his cast. Harrison impresses as the teen trying to navigate his emotions. There’s the loss of his grandfather, the sense of responsibility to the family dog, the happiness that comes from being around other people and an innocent attraction to Kim.
Abbott is also strong as Will. He conveys that sense of relief at finding some stability for his family and the desperation to keep it. Ejogo and Keough don’t get as many standalone moments, but their performances are just as solid. Edgerton continues to prove his tremendous versatility with another enthralling effort. He’s one of those actors where an Academy Award seems inevitable at some point in his career.
Due to the tone and pacing, the film starts to feel longer than its 97 minute run time. Ninety seven intense, nerve-challenging minutes is emotionally more draining than a two hour snooze fest.
It Comes at Night is a genuinely intense, engaging and smart thriller. The characters don’t behave stupidly and the horror unfolds organically. For those who like to be left on edge, this is hits all the creepiest marks.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Eric McNatt/A24