The contagion story has become a well-worn box office staple of the late capitalist era, with films like Outbreak, Resident Evil and 28 Days Later depicting the Western world as physically and morally corrupted by the unwitting failures of the neoliberal economy and modern science. Following in the footsteps of some of the genre’s younger iterations — see 2014’s It Follows — It Comes At Night is both aggressively entertaining and of its time, reinvigorating the disease narrative with a topical twist. Where It Follows dramatised the social stigma surrounding casual sex and STDs in young adults, here the epidemic becomes a stage upon which the nuclear family structure, toxic masculinity and self-interest are pushed to their limits, the family home serving as incubator (for lack of a better word) of close-quarter psychodrama in the vein of Carnage and The Exterminating Angel.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the SXSW Film Festival for his 2015 debut feature, Krisha, It Comes at Night centres on a family living in an isolated, boarded-up house in the woods somewhere in North America. Pushed out of the city by a vicious disease that appears to have decimated North America, the family abides by a strict quarantining procedure put in place by the family patriarch, Paul (Joel Edgerton). There’s only one way out of the house, through two locked doors painted bright red that form an “airlock room” between them and the outside world. If they need to go outside for any reason, they must go in pairs, and are forbidden from going out at night.
While isolation has kept the family alive to this point, it’s unclear how long Paul’s wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) will be able to follow through with his increasingly paranoid hold on the family unit. The first signs of fracture occur in the film’s opening sequence, with Paul’s father-in-law Bud (David Pendleton) in his final moments, labouring for breath and covered in dense, black pustules. Sarah tells her father it’s okay, he can let go. The old man is wheeled into the forest, his body swiftly disposed of by Paul with a bullet to the head, some gasoline and a match. It’s a cold-blooded ending to an otherwise very human moment, and seems to trigger something profound in Travis — a loss of respect and trust in his father, and the realisation that humans are the real monsters in this story.
Travis becomes the eyes through which the rest of the drama unfolds, and we follow him on nightly explorations of the house, in sequences that sit uncomfortably between dream, sleepwalk and conscious experience. Expertly brought to life by Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels, Travis’ nighttime excursions through the family home are a delicious exercise in tension. Natural, in-scene lighting in the form of a candle or gas lamp ensures that every shadow and reflective surface is put to use, producing some of the most elegantly choreographed jump-scare sequences of any recent horror thriller.
Things get hairy when, late one night, an intruder is discovered in the house. After an prolonged altercation with Paul, the stranger is introduced as Will (Christopher Abbott). Paul takes a gamble and accompanies Will back to his family, who live in a house 50 miles away and are willing to barter food and animals for water. Soon, Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough, who packs a punch in what is a mostly secondary role) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) return with the men, and the two families decide to live together in the hopes of increasing their chances of survival. Far from strength by numbers, the arrangement quickly turns sour as Paul’s suspicions begin to rub off on the others.
Joel Edgerton is mesmerising in his role as the increasingly tragic patriarch, clawing at his last chances to prove himself to his wife and son, only to catalyse the tragic events that seal the fate of both families. In a tense dinner table scene soon after the arrival of the new residents, Paul sits at the end of the table, explaining an impossibly detailed list of house rules. What could be quite an amusing portrait of the despotic housemate instead feels like a silent one-upping between the two men, and the ‘big brother’ relationship that Will forms with Travis only seem to exacerbate Paul’s need to establish himself as the Big Dog of the household.
Where the contagion plot usually hinges on the premise that humans must adapt to their new reality or face extinction, Paul represents the old order, where men are men and individualism trumps communal interest. The subtlety of Shults’ screenplay lies in the slow unveiling of what or who actually poses a threat to this status quo. More hazardous than the deadly disease is the penetration of the family unit the influences of Will and his wife, their presence embodying an increasingly symbolic danger: Will as a threat to Paul’s pride and authority, and Kim as an object of sexual fantasy and desire. The battle ahead is not physical, but ideological.
The gradual erosion of the family unit moves like a slow-burning tragedy, with Travis taking on an increasingly central role as witness to “the sins of the father.” Like most things at seventeen, Travis’ first experiences of violence, loss and desire feel monumental, and it is to Harrison’s credit that this coming of age through-line feels honest, and not corny. However, several attempts to inject character development into the dialogue are just that, including a cringe-inducing conversation about cupcakes between Kim and Travis as he attempts to flirt, and an too-brief conversation in which Will tells Paul about his previous career, as a school teacher specialising in ancient history. For a film that is so thematically and visually rich, the few dialogue sequences feel at best underdeveloped, and at worst somewhat awkward motions towards symbolism — perhaps for the better, these are largely forgettable. The film’s crawling pace will no doubt alienate audiences looking for immediate thrills, but title is far from deceptive: the monsters are all there, only they are dressed in civilian clothing.