Trey Edward Shults may not be a name you’re too familiar with—his first feature film was 2015’s drama Krisha—but with the help of a studio like A24 backing his indie viral-thriller It Comes at Night, it’s not at all surprising to see his second film gain so much traction throughout the genre. Shults’ low budget thriller is a tragic and poignant new addition to A24’s impressive library, and despite its narrative shortcomings, It Comes at Night is a bleak nightmare fueled by panic and doubt. In it, secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, a man has established a tenuous domestic order with his wife and son. Then a desperate young family arrives seeking refuge.
Shults’ film is entirely built around the horror of the unknown—it’s one of the great things about this genre; we don’t always need every detail to paint a horrifying picture. Our imagination fills those dark holes and it’s a powerful tool that It Comes at Night exploits to the fullest. But its very strength of telling us almost nothing about the world in which these characters endure is its weakness, too. There’s just not a whole lot of substance here and the story suffers because of it.
It’s a strikingly minimal story that is constructed on the hope that the audience will fill in the gaps—there’s no hand-holding in this one, folks. It’s not like the story is hard to figure out, however. We know it’s an apocalyptic setting in which a virus has wiped out most of the population. And right in the middle of nowhere, deep in the dark of the woods, is a family just trying to survive. That’s it. That’s as far as the story goes. So there’s really no need for Shults to set anything up from a narrative standpoint. Instead, the film feels like it picks up right in the middle, just in time to watch the world come crashing down on what’s left of its characters. If you think that seems like a depressing way to tell a story, then you’d be right because It Comes at Night is every bit as soul-crushing as it sounds.
And now I’m starting to see why the response to Shults’ film has been so muted—it’s a tough film to sell, and even harder to recommend because it’s just so… hopeless. And there’s typically nothing wrong with that (it is a horror movie after all), but the issue is that none of it had any worthy result. I’m all for tragic and painful endings, but the payoff needs to be worth the journey and It Comes at Night just doesn’t deliver anything satisfying. It ends a lot like it starts; like there’s still so much missing, and because of that the film just didn’t quite land the way I hoped.
All that said, the movie isn’t bad by any means. So much of it is perfectly paced, blending its post-apocalyptic atmosphere with razor sharp tension as we watch two families come completely unhinged. Shults does a fantastic job of selling practically nothing here. Instead, he lets the tension of the unknown do the all of the talking, allowing the horror to unfold slowly and with purpose. You can’t trust anyone because as soon as you do, you’ve let the monster in. And that’s what makes this movie so painful to watch, too, because its message is so achingly tragic—being kind to others might get you fucking killed.