Fear lives in the unknown. This is why we are scared of the dark. This is why we look under the bed before climbing in.
Some of the best horror films lasso this primal fear of the unknown and rub our faces in it until we scream “uncle.” IT COMES AT NIGHT is not so aggressive, but it does exploit our discomfort in not knowing with a quiet paranoia. It is also one of the best horror films of 2017.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults (see 2015’s Krisha if you haven’t) IT COMES AT NIGHT takes place in our world after an outbreak of some sort. Rather than telling the tale of our society’s global downfall, or track the virology of an outbreak, we are only initially introduced to one family as they deal with their new normal. A father (Paul, Joel Edgerton), a mother (Sarah, Carmen Ejogo), their son (Travis, Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and the grandfather (David Pendleton) are living—existing, not thriving—in a generously-sized cabin in the woods. Never do we get a full backstory on this family, we are just introduced to lives at the moment we meet them.
This lack of information is the cornerstone of IT COMES AT NIGHT’s narrative structure. Consistently it shows, rather than tells, and it only shows what is necessary. The film rewards the audience’s attention to detail, but does not punish anyone who misses these juicy details. As we are lead through days, weeks, and months of this family’s life we slowly learn of what has happened to this world and where it has left them.
It is clear that there is some sort of viral outbreak that has affected their woods. While it may appear at first to be a worldwide situation, it instead serves as a reminder that the world of the film is small. IT COMES AT NIGHT is not a story of a global apocalypse; it is just a story of a family in the woods.
This affliction not only isolates the family from the rest of humanity, it cranks their paranoia up to eleven. They are cautious around strangers, who may or may not be harboring this virus, but do not act unreasonably. In fact, IT COMES AT NIGHT is one of the rare horror films that feature strong characters making smart decisions. Paul is coolheaded and unemotional, and ultimately has his family’s best interests at heart.
As the film chugs along, however, it is revealed that this is not Paul’s story. Travis slowly takes our attention away from the father figure and instead makes the film more focused on the tragedy and horror of being a confused teenager in these dark times. Harrison’s performance sets the standard for understated and expressive acting in 2017’s horror landscape, and completely captures our empathy.
If fear lies in the unknown, I will leave further details on the film’s plot and surprises unspoiled. Just remember, attention to detail is rewarded and IT COMES AT NIGHT assumes that the audience is intelligent and engaged.