“It Comes at Night” (now available via Redbox and streaming) is the latest scary/smart horror-thriller, eschewing haunted houses and possessed children and instead taking its place with “Maggie,” “It Follows,” “The Witch,” “Don’t Breathe” and “Get Out” by showing how people react in intense situations. It throws us into a world where a plague – which can only be contracted at night, hence the title – has wiped out most of civilization. It’s like if you tuned into a conventional outbreak drama after the opening act.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, “It Comes at Night” effectively builds its world, starting with a shocking opening scene that ends with Paul (Joel Edgerton) burning the body of his father-in-law, a plague victim. I was drawn into “ICAN’s” exploration of an isolated family in the woods and the other family, led by Will (Christopher Abbott), that joins them. The film is its own worst enemy, though, because it raises so many compelling questions that it never intends to answer (What is the world like overall? Where did the plague originate?).
Although the bonus feature on the Blu-ray is called “Human Nature,” I think the film is more about specific humans than universal traits. I found myself wishing Paul would be more trusting of Will and lighten up a bit. Indeed, “ICAN” is ultimately critical of its characters: If every moment of your life is about survival, by the end you’ll wonder what you were trying so hard to survive for.
“ICAN” creates a claustrophobic world. Paul, wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live in a cabin that is boarded up except for one red door. Covered in plastic, the room beyond the door is a quarantine area of sorts, then the outdoors is beyond – offering potential threats from other humans during the day and the mysterious plague at night.
Will, Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Matthew move in with Paul’s family, as everyone subscribes to the theory of strength in numbers. But their interactions are slightly unsettling. Their first encounter is when Will breaks into the house looking for supplies and Paul binds him to a tree for 24 hours, to see if he has the disease. While Will’s assertion that Paul just did what he had to do is logical on the surface, this notion ran through my head: I’d hold a grudge against someone who tied me to a tree for a day.
As it goes forward, the movie continues to prompt uneasy thoughts as we’re let into the headspaces of Paul, Will and Travis. The teenager seems to be crushing on Kim, something that would be harmless in the real world but which seems dangerous when they’re forcefully cooped up. Travis’ nightmares provide the horror element, along with loud bursts of sound (this is one of those movies that’s either too quiet or too loud, so you’ll want to rely on closed captioning).
“ICAN” is relentlessly good, but it’s not enough of a good thing. Kim and Sarah are explored less than the male characters, and it might’ve been compelling if Travis was inspired into wilder actions. The movie can’t tear itself away from the simmering Paul-Will rivalry. While Edgerton and Abbott play off each other intriguingly, Shults leaves a lot of other character and plot stones left unturned.