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'It Comes at Night' a Spellbinding Tale of Family and Survival

Jun. 27, 2017
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Grandfather caught the sickness with labored breathing, skin broken into welts and blood flowing from his mouth. His family had no choice: In the opening, heart-tearing scene from It Comes at Night, son-in-law Paul (Joel Edgerton) and grandson Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), wearing masks and gloves, lead the old man to a clearing outside the house. They cover his face, shoot him in the head, set his body on fire and trudge sadly away as smoke from the pyre reaches the treetops of the dark forest. 

It Comes at Night

Joel Edgerton

Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Directed by Trey Edward Shults

Rated R

The “why?” is finally explained many minutes into the film, but a visual clue appears early on in the form of a print hung on the wall of the family’s house: A Bruegel image of the Plague with bodies and skulls heaped against a lurid sky. An unexplained pandemic has swept across civilization, apparently leaving only scattered bands of survivors vulnerable to contagion by air or touch. The interracial family at the heart of It Comes at Night occupies a rambling house in the woods, windows boarded up with only one tightly bolted entrance—a red door.

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night is a gripping end-time drama steeped in the conventions of horror. The spooky tracking shots, slowly inching down the dark corridors, suggest a ghoulish apparition is imminent. But the clanging that erupts from the nocturnal darkness comes from living hands. Will (Christopher Abbott) is merely a stranger in search of water. Paul beats Will and ties him to a tree until assured that the stranger is healthy and means no harm. Soon enough, Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their little boy come to live in the big forest house, contributing chickens, goats and canned goods to the larder. The two families seem to bond around common meals but distrust lingers.

The small cast is perfectly in pitch. Edgerton plays Paul with a hard face and eyes continually scanning for danger. Although he says he was a history teacher, his reflexes are those of a Special Forces officer commanding a vulnerable outpost. His wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), is no less determined but softens his deadly survivalism with a touch of empathy. Their son Travis, 17, sensitive and artistic, suffers from nightmares that tend to come true. Will, a mechanic before the sickness came, brings another set of practical hands; Kim’s presence inadvertently adds sexual tension to Travis’ already bulging kitbag of burdens.

Ebbing and flowing between unease and high anxiety, the emotional strain of It Comes at Night never ceases. Suspense and suspicion are palpable in the face of an implacable specter: the microbes of a sickness without a cure. The plague might enter the house with any stranger that knocks on the red door.

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