Horror has a new flavor in the Trump-era. The genre has adapted itself to the angst of civil conflict, the deception of “alternative facts,” and the threat of nuclear or biological conflict or global warming. Few films, however, manifest these anxieties as completely as the apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night, the sophomore film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults.
The film’s powerful opening shot—a pockmarked, dying old man surrounded by his gas mask-wearing loved ones—establishes the End Times culprit de jour, and also shows off Shults’ ability to speak volumes without saying anything. Jump scares are few and far between. Instead, Shults knows that keeping his audience in the literal and metaphorical dark can be much more torturous than any special effect or loud noise.
Like virtually all horror films, the movie tells a story of survival, and the morally-compromising lengths people go to achieve it. Paul and Sarah (Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo) navigate post-apocalyptic threats while raising their son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). One night, a stranger breaks into their cabin, searching for food and shelter. They reluctantly let him in, along with his wife and son. They settle into a tenuous peace.
And then things unravel. With the confident sadism of a much more experienced director, Shults takes a nasty pleasure in knocking the characters down like dominoes and watching the chain reactions that follow.
Almost like The Twilight Zone, It Comes at Night plays on the precariousness of trust and social bonds. Its horror elements remain far in the shadows and serve to amplify the increasingly tenuous grip the characters have on normalcy and objective truth. Across the plot’s arc, as it builds from quiet tension to total fever pitch, the movie refuses to provide an obvious monster. Instead, the antagonist takes the form of collective distrust. Shults’ carefully waged war of doubt really only comes to a head in the film’s agonizing climax, but even if little actually happens before then, the shots of rotted trees, the tense whistle of the wind, and the darting eyes of our protagonists make sure the audience stays as uncomfortable as their unfortunate subjects.
If this film doesn’t really sound like much of a horror film, that would be because it really isn’t one. It’s too quiet, too polished, too thesis-driven to qualify among the ranks of The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Blair Witch Project. Nevertheless, It Comes at Night puts forward some intriguing, depressing, and, yes, scary, ideas about the power of the unknown and the shortcomings of reason in the face of danger, an especially potent notion today. In fact, its most terrifying part may be the similarly fearful and irrational echoes of the film you hear in the conversations around you—on TV, radio, and at home.