The grandfather is very sick. The only rational course of action: put him in a wheelbarrow, roll him to a shallow grave in the forest, shoot him in the head, and set him on fire. In “It Comes at Night,” the second feature from Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha”), this is a mercy killing, and it’s the audience’s introduction to a terrifying, mysterious world.
Something has happened in the cities. Nobody understands quite what. Definitely a communicable disease, one so powerful it kills its victims within 48 hours. Probably some sort of electromagnetic pulse, too, one that has knocked out power, erased modern communication capabilities, turned basic resources scarce, and upended modern life into frighteningly quiet chaos.
It’s not a sexy apocalypse, with a disease that transforms everyone into really cool zombies. It’s just death. And it’s not an easily managed “Doomsday Preppers” scenario solved by bulk foods from Jim Bakker infomercials. It’s just doom. And without ever learning the what, how or why of it all, we understand that Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo, “Alien: Covenant”), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr., “The Birth of A Nation”) had better keep themselves boarded up in their remote, woodland house or suffer the same fate as Grandpa.
“It Comes at Night” is not a horror film, though it is horrifying, mining the depths of paranoia and fear when unknown forces intrude on domesticity and create desperate rats out of otherwise reasonable human beings. That boarded-up home is breached one night by a man (Christopher Abbott, “Girls”) in search of food and water for his wife (Riley Keough, “American Honey”) and toddler son (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Paul’s reaction is to tie this possibly diseased intruder to a tree until he can be certain there’s no threat. Soon after, the hungry family moves into the house and lives, tentatively, by Paul’s very strict safety rules. Obviously, more bad stuff is coming.
It’s that flimsy construction of certainty and safety that Shults is most interested in destroying. He does so with a restraint that borders on maddening minimalism. When the camera moves outside, gnarled tree branches find their way into the shot, but there’s nothing so ostentatious as a visible malevolent force waiting in the woods.
Inside, where it’s presumably more orderly, cinematographer Drew Daniels’s camera is, quite often, slowly zooming down dark hallways toward a symbolically red wound of a door, advancing or retreating from creepy single light sources. The walls might be protecting everyone inside from whatever “it” is out there in the night, but it sure doesn’t feel good.
Shults’ concern with family dynamics — his debut, “Krisha,” explored simmering domestic tension, as well — takes a turn for the bleak. Edgerton’s Paul may be the man making the self-defeating rules and fueling the most frightening action, but it’s Harrison, as son Travis, whose performance is the source of emotional resonance. His circumscribed yearning for life outside and for sexual expression, taking the form of longing stares and quiet laughter only he can hear, feels like a form of suffocation. And while his gruesome nightmares of impending disease may or may not be prophetic, they serve as opportunities for escape from what is certain to be a life sentence stuck in a house with mom and dad.
In the end, “It Comes at Night” subverts the associations conjured by its own title. What is out there in that night? Nothing at all, maybe, or possibly the end of your life, and it might not matter if you’re ready to battle it or not. Humans evolved from living situations that mandated we stay alert after sunset, in case predatory animals entered the cave to eat us alive. We just haven’t necessarily learned what replaces that fear. It becomes its own prison.
Shults advances the idea of safety as a joke we play on ourselves, a series of anxiety-driven tasks that overwhelm other considerations about how life is to be lived, and not just in times of crisis, when confusion and anxiety overwhelm the senses. His film rejects the idea of release, instead locking its characters in a terrible night of their own endless vigilance.