I became a fan of Trey Edward Shults when I discovered his feature debut KRISHA at my very last screening of SXSW '16. I had heard much hype about the film, and though I hadn't even planned on seeing "one last movie" at the fest that year, boy was I glad that I did. Shults' simple story about the tumultuous Thanksgiving homecoming of a troubled family member absolutely blew me away. I love a great single-location drama, and the young writer/director absolutely hit the nail on the head with the heartbreaking short-turned-feature KRISHA, a shoestring production featuring astonishing performances from a cast mainly composed of family members. Needless to say, when the Diva Del Mar informed me that Shults was the filmmaker behind the new horror/thriller IT COMES AT NIGHT, I was even more excited to check out the buzzed about film.
Of course, it also helped that I was able to take part in a special screening of the film hosted by the Alamo Drafthouse and Birth.Movies.Death's lovely Meredith Borders where 150 of us were bused out to a remote wooded location complete with gas-masked group leaders, passage through a creepy red door, and the sudden ignition of an impressive fire pit as we made our way down a dark path to the make shift Rolling Roadshow outdoor cinema.
Though the usual hoopla from the Drafthouse crew certainly helped set an eerie stage for the chilling film, I will most definitely say that the theatrics paled in comparison to what eventually unfolded before my eyes upon the inflatable big screen in the middle of the dark woods.
The film begins well into the drama as we see a mother, father, and son dealing with a devastating plague that has taken over the country, or even the world. The family is already well-practiced in their own brand of survival tactics. The single entry into their sealed/shuttered home, off-the-grid self sufficient living, and dealing with the afflicted in a swift and merciless manner have enabled the isolated group to survive as long as they have. Though there is no real explanation about the epidemic or time line, it is apparent that the family has managed to endure for longer than most due to their their self-imposed isolation and survival skills.
When a stranger breaks into their home during the dead of night, the story takes a solid shift into psychological drama territory. After the prowler is apprehended and endures a brutal interrogation period, he convinces his captors that he thought the home was abandoned while searching for supplies for his family. Reluctantly, Paul (Joel Edgerton as the father/leader of the clan) decides to invite the desperate family into his fold. Although the union is harmonious at first, soon inconsistencies in their backstory begin to perforate the trust that is paramount in such an extreme circumstance, and the reality of the human condition takes over.
I absolutely adore the constant high tension that Shults cultivates onscreen. As every characters' intentions and motivations come into question, the writer/director perpetuates a gnawing ambiguity in each of them that keeps you on your toes throughout the drama. I also appreciate that despite the utter seriousness of the dire subject matter, Shults keenly steers the story away from melodrama with a spartan score and hypnotic visuals. Sound design is most definitely the star of the film, creating a throbbing sense of intrigue against an array of mesmerizing imagery. Though the story does take its time and is definitely a slow burn, the payoffs are big enough to fully diffuse any plot meandering. The few times the shit hits the fan, it hits big and provides an essential antidote to the nail biting suspense that dominates the majority of the film.
Joel Edgerton does a masterful job embodying a character who has transformed from a regular Joe into a hardened survivor. Though he is hell bent on protecting his wife and son, he is also conflicted about the measures it takes to do so in this new desperate context. He wants to do the right thing, but in this case the right thing means never making his family vulnerable, even when it contradicts his former self to the extreme. As Will the interloper, Christopher Abbott strikes a perfect balance between believability and bullshitter. Despite the presence of his adorable family providing plausibility to his earlier story, Abbott exudes a duality that leaves a lingering question mark right up to the end. Kudos also go to the tenacious Riley Keough. After completely stealing the show in last year's AMERICAN HONEY, Keough once again lights up the screen as Will's timid and protective wife and mother of their young son.
Though I successfully avoided trailers and spoilers ahead of my early screening of IT COMES AT NIGHT, I will say now that I've taken it all in, the film's marketing campaign is a bit misleading in portraying the movie as straight horror. Though the incredibly creepy and tense sound design lends the film a horror sensibility, the story is most definitely more of a psychological drama. Perhaps it can be argued that the horror can be found in the human nature exhibited onscreen, but the insinuation in the ad campaign (not to mention the title) that some sort of monster is lurking in the night may put off some genre fans looking for a traditional scare. There are definitely some some spine-chilling moments, however it's the drama and white knuckle suspense that had me on edge throughout the film.
Aside from that extraneous critique, I totally dug the slow burn thriller. With another terrific single-location drama under his belt, I am really looking forward to seeing what Shults is capable of in an expanded universe. I highly recommend checking out IT COMES AT NIGHT when it opens in theaters on June 9.
aka Annette Kellerman