I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The It that comes at night? It’s not a monster. It’s something much worse, because it cannot be outrun or shot dead or escaped from. It’s fear. It’s paranoia. It’s your mind. It’s human nature. It’s yourself.
The apocalypse has already arrived in the quietly chilling It Comes at Night. We don’t know quite what happened, but everything has fallen apart. Is the horrific virulent infection that we bear witness to as the film opens the cause of the breakdown, or is it a result of the breakdown? It hardly matters. What matters is that Paul (Joel Edgerton: Midnight Special, Jane Got a Gun) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo: Alien: Covenant, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and their teenaged son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), are holed up in a big house in the middle of the woods, constantly on edge. They’re clearly afraid of something out there, beyond their little oasis: is that “merely” infection or “merely” invasion by other desperate people, which are certainly terrible enough? There are hints that there could be something more to worry about.
Where is everybody? All dead? Writer-director Trey Edward Shults crafts uneasy suspense from that anxiety: Which puts a worse cramp of terror in your gut, that everyone else is gone, or that someone is going to show up and try to steal your food and water? We don’t know when the last time was Paul, Sarah, and Travis saw another human being, but it feels like it must be ages. And then someone else does show up: Will (Christopher Abbott: Martha Marcy May Marlene), and he’s got his own story about trying to get by in this uncertain new world. But can they trust the newcomer?
Every moment of this supremely accomplished little film, only the second feature from Shults, is tense with a nameless disquietude, like we don’t know how to feel about what we’re watching. Or, rather, we know how we feel and we don’t much like it, because what Night has to say about what people will do when their very existence is at stake isn’t pretty… but it’s also pretty understandable. This is a movie where you sometimes want to hate the characters for what they do and don’t do, but you can’t. This is a nightmare of human frailty and strength, of the instinct to survive at war with the instinct toward humanity, which is only made more complicated and more unsettling because often those things cannot be separated. Humans are tribal, and that’s not always a bad thing! We need other people to survive and thrive. Loneliness and isolation is driving them all a little crazy — especially Travis, who has only Stanley the dog for friendship — and does that make them let their guard down when they shouldn’t? There’s an awful dread and a high toll that comes from constant mistrust, but is there a price to pay for relaxing, too?
“Everything’s gonna be fine,” Paul reassures Sarah at one point, “everything’s gonna be okay.” “You don’t honestly believe that, do you?” she scoffs in reply. This is not the sort of movie about which you can be confident that everything is going to be fine in the end. The simplicity and cold elegance of It Comes at Night includes its emotional scope, which ranges from jittery to hopeless. Perhaps no movie this year has better captured the cultural mood of the moment, like civilization has already ended, and will the last person alive please turn off the lights.