So much depends on a red door in the highly anticipated new horror film It Comes at Night. So much that when that solitary door is inevitably left open, it becomes a red scare: a symbolic catalyst for the collapse of a micro-society built on fear.
The society in this case consists of just two families forced to cohabitate amid what may or may not be a real apocalypse, brought about by what may or may not be a real viral plague. Clinging to the safety of their isolated rural house, the first family, headed by Joel Edgerton, begins and ends the film consumed by fear of what’s happening in the world outside.
The theme of isolated paranoiac psychological breakdown is a common one for horror. But it’s writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s ability to balance literal and metaphorical horror that makes his second feature film unique. Harrowing, visually striking, and almost too on the nose for the current sociopolitical moment, It Comes at Night is one of the best films of the year and a triumphant installment in studio A24’s continuing run of superb horror.
It Comes at Night doesn’t waste time on what “it” is
The film opens with the straightforward presentation of something awful: The head of the family, Paul (Edgerton), euthanizes his own sickly father-in-law while his horrified son, 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), watches. Edgerton’s grim resignation as Paul shoots and burns the corpse immediately introduces viewers to the paranoiac domain over which Paul is now ruler: one in which family members are terrified that prolonged exposure to the world outside will cause them to become sick as well.
Paul’s wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), has a quietly tense, careful relationship with her husband; when a newcomer breaks into the house, thinking it’s empty, Sarah convinces Paul to spare his life and get information from him. Still, she can only do so much to influence what is essentially Paul’s authoritarian rule over the household, and when the newcomer, Will (Christopher Abbott), tells them his family is seeking asylum, Sarah’s argument in favor of cohabitation with the new couple wars with Paul’s growing distrust of all outsiders.
Paul initially treats Will like a prisoner instead of a refugee from the outside world, binding and hooding him and trading him water for information, the accuracy of which we never discover. When Will and Paul make a tense trip to collect Will’s family and the much-needed supplies they bring with them, their only contact with other members of the outside world ends in immediate bloodshed; we get no answers from Will or anyone else about what’s really happening outside.
The fear at the heart of the film is never fully explained or conceptualized, but It Comes at Night trusts its viewers to understand that the question of whether the source of the fear is real isn’t the point. In fact, the characters’ inconsistency about their own belief system — they seem to break their own rules about wearing oxygen masks, only going outside in pairs, and never going out at night as often as they keep them — makes that belief seem all the more based in zealotry rather than logic or access to factual information.
The viral infection seems to be real, but its cause, its effects, and the nature of the societal disruption it’s caused are all left vague for viewers. It’s also framed through the surreal point of view of Travis, who often hallucinates and mistakes dreams for reality in a kind of walking distorted nightmare brought on by the stress and isolation — a waking dream from which he rarely escapes.
That point of view turns increasingly unreliable as Travis grows closer to the newcomers, in particular Will’s young wife, Kim (Riley Keough). Despite the two families’ surface-level attempts to form a loving mini society, Travis’s affinity for the new family alarms Paul and sparks a steadily building firestorm of interfamilial tensions, mistrust, and growing dysfunction. Paul’s paranoia infects them all until the fraying, thin bonds they’ve formed reach their inevitable breaking point in a painful climax.
The film doubles as psychological drama and a sociopolitical nightmare
Horror fans frequently debate whether the horror films distributed by A24 — which include The Witch, Green Room, and Under the Skin — are made for mainstream moviegoers or for a more esoteric, indie film–loving set. The answer seems to be somewhere in between, and It Comes at Night rides that line easily thanks to a combination of fantastic acting, tense plotting, and, in particular, a surfeit of sumptuous aesthetics. The house at the center of It Comes at Night is as haunted as any house in horror, and cinematographer Drew Daniels indulges in long, slow pans through its endless empty corridors, as well as lush shots of deeply isolated woods that slowly heighten the film’s growing claustrophobia. It’s a beautiful film.
But where It Comes at Night’s ability to speak on multiple levels to multiple audiences is most apparent is the way its plot unfolds as a microcosm of societal collapse through fear. It Comes at Night could just as easily have been titled Democracy Dies in Darkness; without access to information about what’s happening in the world outside, every family member is held hostage by Paul’s paranoiac vision, even at the expense of their own freedom.
Edgerton masterfully humanizes Paul as someone constantly wrestling with the weight of his decisions — which only makes his choice to give in to fear again and again that much more relentlessly disturbing. His assurances to Sarah and Travis that he loves them, that all of his decisions are about protecting them and their nuclear family, erode over the course of the film.
The steady decay of Paul’s family is a visceral, ugly, but mesmerizing reminder that the noble words we use to construct society are only as powerful as the actions we put behind them. In It Comes at Night, the word “love” itself becomes an increasingly hollow lie, bandied about like a tattered flag used to justify a complete breakdown of the components of actual love — trust, empathy, and open doors. It Comes at Night is enthralling horror, but it’s utterly devastating as a portrait of modern America: It goes straight for the jugular of contemporary American politics and slices clean through.