It seems like every generation has one studio that puts indie film on its back and brings some truly remarkable films to a wider audience. In the 1990s, Miramax made household names out of the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin. In the 2000s, Fox Searchlight was able to pull Little Miss Sunshine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Garden State from the festival circuits and put them into the multiplex.
These days, when 3D blockbusters take up more screens and indie fare finds itself going VOD (the lucky few getting the Netflix Original stamp of approval), it seems as though A24 has become the lone indie studio that manages to get a steady stream of exceptional films to theaters across the country. It Comes at Night is just the latest film in an impressive four-year run that includes Spring Breakers, Ex Machina, The Witch, and the reigning Best Picture winner, Moonlight.
To call It Comes at Night a post-apocalyptic film is technically accurate, but a bit of a misnomer. Sure, it’s technically accurate, but the word may bring to mind Mad Max or The Walking Dead, depending on your frame of reference. This film, on the other hand, could take place as contemporary as two days from now, with the “post-apocalypse” is little more than a MacGuffin to bring the story and tensions along.
We are thrust into the world of It Comes at Night with emotions high, as the family of Paul, Sarah, and 17-year old Travis has to deal with the fact that the grandfather of the family has contracted a virus: His eyes are blacked over, he has boils all over his body, and he is very contagious. The family’s experience is similar to everyone else that has encountered the virus, one that has redefined what it means to be alive in the world. It’s now a nation of survivalists, where food and water is finite and desperation is started to take over. Paul has his family under strict control, making sure no one goes out at night and possessing the only key to the only exit that hasn’t been boarded up in their discrete house in the woods.
One night, a man tries to break into the house, claiming he thought it was abandoned. Paul ties him up, unable to decide what to do with him. Once he realizes that he is not infected, he reluctantly invites the man and his family (his wife and young son) to live with his family under the same rules that they have lived by for some time. They agree, but it isn’t long before tensions and fears get the best of everybody involved.
It Comes at Night is, by no means, a crowd-pleaser in the usual sense of the word. When it comes to modern day horror films, you can usually count on a few things: a few jump scares, maybe some gore, but ultimately a happyish ending (save for that final scare at the end). It’s gotten to the point that people question whether movies are horror movies if they do not stick to this formula of expectations. Make no mistake: this is a horror movie. Much in the same way that The Witch was able to create tension and atmosphere while showing very little is similar to how this film manages to pull so much from a simple little question: who left that goddamn door open?
What works so well in this film is the fact that there is no clear-cut good or bad guy and there are no definitive answers to what should happen as the events transpire. Everyone has their point-of-view, everyone has their reasons for what they do, and they’re all essentially valid. It boils down to a group of people put into a bad situation and being forced to act on that situation. There’s no right, no wrong, and there are definitely no winners.
To talk any further about the plot points of the film would step into spoiler territory, and I don’t really want to do that more than I already have. It Comes at Night is a slow burn sort of film, but the payoff is incredible and heartbreaking. It’s a film that is able to accomplish that by creating fully dimensional characters and letting the actors do what they were hired to do. In a relatively small cast, there’s hardly a weak link in the group of five main characters. Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott do most of the heavy lifting as the patriarchs of each family and they work extremely well together. Edgerton especially shines as Paul, as he wants to trust the man he’s just invited into his home, but knows that trust can be the first step towards putting his family into danger.
I was a little worried that I was going to walk into a movie that was going to rely more on the zombie-ish nature of the illness, but this film couldn’t be further than a paint-by-numbers zombie movie. It’s a movie about humans trying to maintain their humanity and civility, even though their gut is telling them that it could get them killed. If you’re looking for a horror movie that examines the human experience in a raw, unflinching manner, It Comes at Night has you covered.
But seriously: who left the goddamn door open?