There’s a letterboxd post by Julian Towers that essentially sums up Trey Edward Shultz’s sophomore feature It Comes at Night as a feature-length episode of The Walking Dead and I honestly cannot imagine a more apt way of describing the movie (well, maybe a more competently-made version too with less budget). It is similar in aesthetics right down to the worn grey and charcoal color palette that establishes our horror film as grounded post-apocalyptic atmospheres, it is similar in character relations and tensions being the true “incidents” that pace to efficiently use the runtimes, and they’re both thematically shallow enough to only sum up themselves as “people don’t trust each other in times of strife and that leads to everybody dying.” This was not revelatory well before The Walking Dead’s premiere in 2010, let alone 7 years later, and none of the characters or plot developments provide anything new or of interested beyond that very simply concept.
This is a shame because Shultz is no slouch as a craftsman and I can’t imagine anybody walking out of It Comes at Night thinking it was a remotely lazy film. Far from it, a movie this efficient in trying to make its post-apocalyptic world, on the tail of an epidemic, is clearly not going to get away with laziness and yet despite largely remaining on the perspective of the young Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) – there are very notable exceptions to this but nothing that I want to say hurts the film – there’s a sense of the world beyond our periphery being ravaged and torn without any doubt about it. The movie smartly begins this by showing upfront the effects of this contagion and how very easy it is to suffer from it, as Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton) is infected within the walls of the family’s secluded wood-surrounded sanctuary and quickly dispatched with by Travis’ father Paul (Joel Edgerton) and mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo).
Hence the ability to set up tension easily with anybody who approaches the family’s home since we’re seen how severe it is and the explanation on why Paul is immediately hostile towards an intruder one night named Will (Christopher Abbott) arrives desperately trying to find supplies and shelter for his own family – wife Kim (Riley Keough) and child Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) – again wasting no time in establishing how shaky the co-living arrangements of the two families will be in such a desperate time and the certainly that Paul will possibly kill Will and his family if the slightest thing goes wrong.
Obviously, this is the sort of movie that goes wrong. It doesn’t waste any time with things going wrong, even before the families move in, there is ever the slightest belief that Will is hiding something or that something unusual happening is his fault. And Schults plays up that ambiguity as much as he can, leading to a portion of the film leading into the finale act that uses Travis’ nightmares (most of the film is stuck in Travis’ perspective and there are places where it helps and places where the movie knows it shot itself in the foot) and the ever-constant vigilance of their dog Stanley to play with the paranoia and the uncertainty of a sequence of events that leads to the untangling of their tense peace.
And that’s frankly all Schults can play with in this story. Which is sadly why I’m not impressed with It Comes at Night. It’s incredibly shot with the darkness of the film whole enough to direct our eye to one of the few things to be lit, complemented by a weathered and battered physical home design to keep us aware of the walls surrounding the characters, the bright red door that spells flat-out danger beyond, and even in the light through windows of day, the winding claustrophobia of all the hallways around. It Comes at Night is a very visually dark film, dark enough to earn some amount of horror that the otherwise misapplied marketing promised*. Its cast are all dedicated to selling the paranoia and confusion of the film and making their lives as destitute as possible.
But it doesn’t… have anything to say. It’s such an empty movie. That may be deliberate for the nihilistic intent of the film, but it doesn’t feel rewarding in that nihilism nor even profound. It’s a collection of post-apocalyptic tropes that amounts to as much thematical material as… well, as an episode of The Walking Dead, like I said. “Bad things happen when you mistrust people” and that’s it. It seems to be wanting to at least make up for that emptiness in psychological exploration, but that doesn’t really work out when the movie moves back and forth between Travis’ perspective and Paul’s – both distinct enough as moods, without much distance between how their mindset is at the beginning of the movie and how it is at the end of the movie (I am somewhat interested in Schults’ debut Krisha which is a psychological thriller, but the staticness of Travis and Paul as characters makes me uncertain now).
I don’t know, all I could think after watching the film (other than the fact that it felt like a shallow re-do of The Witch) is how I could easily have had a short story version of this film and not lost one single element. It Comes at Night clearly wants to be more than it actually is, but it doesn’t itself enough rope to be much more than a disposable genre film.