With summer blockbuster season in full swing, it’s easy for things to get buried at the box office. Over the past month I’ve been a little distracted by mostly underwhelming big studio releases, so it was refreshing to get back on track with It Comes at Night. A24 has quickly become a major player in the independent film scene and continues to stack its portfolio by distributing high quality films like this one. A family living in isolation in the woods (after the implied apocalypse) faces tragedy and is confronted by outsiders, forcing them to grapple with their moral obligations in the face strangers.
First and foremost, this film is exquisitely shot. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults and Cinematographer Drew Daniels had previously teamed up for Shults’s debut feature film Krisha (2015) and their harmony in vision comes across beautifully on screen here. As the film’s title suggests, light and dark share a important relationship thematically throughout. In particular, the focus of use on natural light, both indoors and out. The eerie abandoned forest setting is creepy enough during daytime in the post apocalypse, but Shults and Daniels successfully pull every bit of living character from the darkness. The often masterful cinematography captures the pitch black wonderfully and paints a stark, alarming contrast on film. Outdoors, the dark wilderness is enveloping and oppressive, inside it’s a spectre. The interior shots were well framed to maximize the architecture of the house and highlight the significance of reliable light sources. Shults understood the importance of giving the night, not only, an atmosphere, but more importantly, character.
Joel Edgerton finds himself in the lead as Paul, a father and husband trying to protect his family as they to survive and move forward after society’s collapse. As the most credentialed actor in the cast, he did most of the heavy emotional lifting but wasn’t the only strong performance. Christopher Abbott was very good as Will, a mirror to Edgerton’s Paul and a family man of his own. Their narratives pivot and occasionally occupy the same space, forcing the actors and the audience to make quick adjustments in perception. Carmen Ejogo, who also had a featured role in Alien: Covenant this year, is good in support as Paul’s wife Sarah. Elvis’s granddaughter Riley Keough plays Will’s wife Kim and, opposite Sarah, the pair hammer down strong bonds with their on-screen families. Much of the movie is told through the prism of Paul and Sarah’s son Travis, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Although he wasn’t bad, too much was on his plate in terms of piggybacking the story on his experiences.
Brian McOmber, who was also a part of Shults’s team for Krisha, brought an extra layer of life to the project with a really powerful score. At one point the drums are rhythmic and angry, fervently reminiscent of a tribal war march. Given the limited background established in the script, the music fills in the blanks splendidly and leaves no mistake as to the severity of the situation. Overall the sound department did a great job with the effects and editing, whether it was a stick snapping under the weight of a step or the ignition pop of a gasoline fueled fire. The value of sound as information played excellently in an otherwise quiet setting.
From start to finish, this movie executes at a high level and hits the mark in all the key areas. It unsettling from the outset and doesn’t lose too much momentum from that point. With a brisk runtime of 91 minutes, it moves along at the right pace and doesn’t feel like it’s dragging on. The film is a slice of intellectual horror, not built around cheap and uninspired scares. While the audience tries to figure out exactly what is going on and who to trust, the door is opened to the fear of the unknown.
Recommendation: If you want to appreciate good filmmaking, you’ll like this one. Or if you’re just in the mood for something outside the mainstream flood of big studio releases. It isn’t overtly violent or sexual and it isn’t terrifying. It’s cerebral and rooted in family values, but I wouldn’t take any really young children to watch it.