By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Written by Trey Edward Shults
Produced by A24, Animal Kingdom
Well, I think it is finally time to move away from Shudder for a bit.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still my favorite streaming service, and there are plenty of new releases I want to cover in the near future. But I’ve spent so long covering their films that I’ve neglected all the good things that have yet to be (re)discovered on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. So, I thought I’d go ahead and make the jump to Netflix this week and moving into next. And the first film I picked… well, I couldn’t have picked a better film, I think. IT COMES AT NIGHT is a tense slow-burn of an apocalypse film, one with a shocking resonance with our current crisis and a nihilistic ending that will probably depress you.
IT COMES AT NIGHT follows Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Paul (Joel Edgerton), and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) after Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton) contracts a mysterious disease. Travis goes with his father and watches as Paul quickly and efficiently bundles his grandfather up, puts his gun to his head, and pulls the trigger; Bud is buried and burned out in the woods surrounding their property, and Travis gets scarred by the experience, wondering at his father’s ability to kill so remorselessly and his capacity for violence. Then Will (Christopher Abbot) shows up at their front door looking for supplies to feed his family, and after a (not so quick) scuffle, interrogation session, and a journey to Will’s home to see if he’s telling the truth, Paul and his family invite Will’s family to move in with them. If they join their resources, they think, they’ll be stronger for it. But as a mysterious force closes in from the forest and Will’s family starts to act strangely, the fragile community begins to fall apart… and not everyone will survive the fallout.
“The fact that, in this movie and in 2020, your life may hinge on a random person’s ability to be responsible is terrifying.”
IT COMES AT NIGHT often feels like a social experiment, a script that began with the question “in the apocalypse, could people depend on others to do the right things for the survival of the group?” And you happen to be reading this in 2020, so much like Trey Edward Shults, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that the answer is no. No, we can’t. IT COMES AT NIGHT is a direct challenge to other works in the apocalypse subgenre like “The Walking Dead,” which touts community (by its end; spoiler for those who haven’t finished the comic) as a necessary evil, the only way the human race can properly move forward. By contrast, IT COMES AT NIGHT portrays community as the beginning of the end, a guarantor of mutual extinction. When Will and his family move into Paul’s home, they are treated with a similar kind of cautious optimism, building a settlement together that looks like the beginning of a return to civilization (even if it’s only a small shred); yet there is always an undercurrent of distrust. Paul tells Travis “You can’t trust anyone but family, as good as they seem. Just don’t forget that, okay?” Yet this undercurrent of distrust proves to be a bit of a mislead, as it isn’t Will’s lies about his family or Kim hanging out in the dark that winds up being the small communities undoing. What actually happens is much scarier: it’s all undone by a simple, small mistake, one that was the direct result of letting this second group in their sanctuary. And if this doesn’t scare you in 2020, I don’t know what will. The brutal, nihilistic climax of the film is one of the roughest things I’ve had to watch recently, as both groups throw their humanity out the window, reduced to doing what they have to in order to survive.
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with A24’s output that IT COMES AT NIGHT is a bit of a slow burn. The director saves most of the shocking stuff for the end, preferring to threaten you with the possibility of bad shit happening for most of the runtime; the question isn’t if things will fall apart, but when, how, and how messy the consequences will be. Something that may prove frustrating for some viewers is that what “IT” is never becomes apparent; all the audience will ever know is that our characters are in a post-apocalyptic setting, there’s a disease that makes people puke black ichor and produces buboes all over their skin, and that something unknown and dangerous is in the woods around the main characters’ property. Some will likely read this as ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake: I read it as none of those things are the point. This film isn’t interested in any of those things, only the two families trying to form a community and seeing if they can survive the strain put on them by… well, all of the above. I can see why some might view that as a bit pretentious, but I chose to see it instead as a character study; frankly, I was far too consumed with the striking parallels between the situation of the film’s characters and the reality of our current situation as coronavirus deaths (here in the U.S.) have hit 150,000.
Ultimately, I’m glad I waited till now to see this film; it’s themes, the way things unravel, and the bloody climax all take on an entirely new and terrifying resonance in 2020. It won’t satisfy everyone who watches it, and if you haven’t been impressed with the arthouse horror trend so far, this film definitely won’t win you over. But it’s one of the best things to watch on Netflix right now, especially during a pandemic. I’m giving it an 8 out of 10.
Don’t watch this one on a bad day.