‘It Comes at Night’ Review: Grief Is a Fate More Terrifying Than Death
Tales of the apocalypse are no longer particularly terrifying in 2017, when the end of the world feels imminent. The real horror is what happens after the world ends, when the surviving few are forced to continue on and cope with what’s left of it. The same could also be said for the devastating experience of losing a loved one, especially if that loss is unnatural and witnessed firsthand by the bereaved. This is the concept that profoundly transforms the basic premise of It Comes at Night into an emotional thesis in which filmmaker Trey Edward Shults posits grief as a personal post-apocalypse — how do you live after your world comes to an end?
This is the question that plagues the small family made up of patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) following the gruesome death of Travis’ grandfather. But unlike the mysterious sickness that’s overtaken much of the world beyond this family’s isolated cabin in the woods, this crisis is more intimate and intangible, and threatens to consume the family from within. That threat escalates with the arrival of a stranger (Christopher Abbott) desperately seeking supplies to care for his own wife (Riley Keough) and toddler son. Paul, whose sense of practicality is practically obsessive, offers to take them in on the principle of mutual benefit, but that relief proves temporary as tensions surface and accumulate until the entire house is saturated with dread.
This growing conflict makes for riveting drama, especially taken through the eyes of Travis, a teenage boy coming of age at a time when such a burden has become useless, in a world where he’s been asked to shoulder so much already. Paul’s zealous lockdown also has the unfortunate effect of stifling his son’s emerging manhood, a fact underscored by a scene in which he sees new housemate Will teaching Travis how to chop wood — a simple chore that a boy of his age and circumstance should already know how to perform. The presence of Will’s wife Kim only makes things more confusing for Travis, whose repressed feelings surface in a series of surreal nightmares. These sequences, filled with images of sickness and death and grotesque body horror mingled with latent sexuality, make for the most overt and objectively terrifying moments in a film that is otherwise more concerned with existential dread.
Because of this, It Comes at Night will inevitably draw comparisons to last year’s The Witch, another handsomely-made and elegant film that also explored the terrors of paranoia in an intimate and isolated family setting — and which inspired several viewers to insist that it wasn’t a real horror movie.
Like The Witch, the increasingly paranoid drama of It Comes at Night is not nearly as compelling or meaningful as the motivation behind it. Paul and his family are so concerned with being invaded, whether by illness or ill intentions, that the deadliest threat of all crept in completely unnoticed.
Grief, in all its forms, is senseless. But when the loss that precedes it is violent, protracted, and wholly visible, the grief that follows is often monstrously misshapen. There are few things more painful (few, not many) than watching someone you love and care about so deeply as they slowly deteriorate before your eyes, while you are completely powerless to stop it. Grief distorts things; it warps our perspective, transforming everything around us and everyone we have left into objects of fickle uncertainty. And yet, there is a remarkable dichotomy to the process of grieving, which simultaneously offers its sufferers the grace of empathy while instilling a distinct sense of mistrust and paranoia.
Each and every trauma endured brings us to a fork in the road: We can either use these personal horrors to become more empathetic to the lived experiences of others, or we can retreat further into ourselves and allow that pain to make us less trusting, less certain, less human. In the world of It Comes at Night, death and disease have created a suffocating atmosphere that’s made it easy for Paul and his family to embrace the latter, to embrace isolation in the myopic hopes of protecting themselves from further trauma. Their home becomes an incubator for the contagion of paranoia, in which the fear of another tragedy, another slow and painful loss, only propagates more terror. To put it another way: They are so desperate to live that they’ve sentenced themselves to die.
It Comes at Night is a companionable follow-up to Shults’ acclaimed directorial debut, Krisha, which also turned banal familial conflict into unnervingly familiar terror. Like his first feature, Shults’ latest isn’t a horror film in the conventional sense (whatever that still means in 2017), though the genre aesthetic is more clearly defined — as is the autobiographical component. Where Krisha was only vaguely inspired by Shults’ personal experiences, It Comes at Night is a direct reaction to the death of his estranged father, a loss keenly felt in every sorrowful frame, despite Shults’ artfully elusive — and effective — attempts at quasi-Lynchian surrealism. It may unfortunately ring hollow for some, but for those who acutely empathize with the ravages of grief, Shults has delivered a film more horrific than any boogeyman or ghoul in recent memory.