In my experience, the horror film genre gets a bad rap. In a conversation with a friend at the beginning of the year, I recommended The Conjuring, but she responded by saying that horror movies are just evil and don't have anything positive about them. And to be fair, many mainstream slashers are a mindless exercise in seeing people die brutal deaths. At the same time, I strongly appreciate the horror genre. It has introduced us to amazingly skilled artists like Stan Winston (Jurassic Park, The Thing) and Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera) whose practical effects work would elicit praise from even the casual moviegoer. It can bring us stories of faith under pressure (The Conjuring). It can help us deal with grief (The Babadook). Or in the case of It Comes at Night, it can bring us to terms with the inevitability of death.
It Comes at Night is the second feature by Trey Edward Shults after his festival darling Krisha. Before going into this film, I read that he wrote this film shortly after his father's death, and I could definitely feel this was his way of coping with it. As much as it uses horror tropes, this is very much a drama about a family dealing with loss and an underlying fear of death. Though we never learn more than the characters do about their circumstances, we understand that there is some kind of sickness ravaging the world and the uninfected are holed up in self-imposed isolation trying to survive--something very familiar to the zombie subgenre. The film opens with a family, led by Joel Edgerton (The Gift, Zero Dark Thirty) as Paul, saying their farewells, covered in hazmat gear, to their deathly ill grandfather. He has contracted this terrible sickness and the family knows they must end it before it spreads. Paul euthanizes his father-in-law, but his teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) witnesses it up close, which haunts him throughout the film. While Travis tries to cope, another family enters their lives and everything changes--and not for the better.
It feels both wrong and right to call this a horror film. On the one hand, the survival horror aspect of the zombie genre is totally apparent--though we never see a zombie or even hear about some walking dead. The psychological breakdown that occurs when people distrust each other in a life-or-death circumstance provides domestic horror. The characteristic fear of the unknown provides all the suspense. Yet on the other hand, there are few scares in the film. That's not to say there aren't any, but they are mainly reserved to the nightmarish dream sequences that haunt Travis at night as he deals with witnessing his grandfather's death. After the film, my friend and I were probably the only ones who walked away satisfied despite the dearth of scares because that's not what this movie was trying to give. The movie used a familiar genre to tell a certain story. In this case, it was a story about accepting death: accepting that people we love will die, and accepting that one day we will die, too. And we need not fear it. It's this fear that drives us apart, that isolates us. We're not wrong to be afraid to die, I feel the movie's telling us, but it shows us what happens when this fear dictates our lives. And those that survive the ordeals that happen here don't learn from it, undoubtedly living what's left of their lives in destructive fear of the inevitable. The film doesn't explain outright what happens to the survivors, nor does it answer every question or how certain things happen, but it tells us enough to fill in the necessary pieces. We know how the story ends, so the film doesn't have to tell us.
I apologize, reader, if my comments till now have been cryptic, but as much as I appreciated the film, it is difficult to discuss it without giving too much away. I can assure you that most of the film works for what it's trying to achieve, and if you're willing to give a different kind of horror a chance, I feel like you would enjoy it. The movie is not without its problems. I feel like the nightmare sequences, while effective and disturbing, also become repetitive. By the second or third fade-out in the nighttime, I knew what we were about to get into since the cinematic language quickly became obvious. They are effective for establishing Travis's psyche and twisting our perceptions of different characters; I wish there was a way that this information could have been shared in a more interesting way. Otherwise, this film is extremely well-acted, especially by the young Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and beautifully shot (see the teaser trailer for evidence). The film is a personal story, and the film benefits from that. I give it 4 out of 5 stars. Check it out if you're willing to see something slower and different, a more pensive film than we're used to in the genre.