Epidemic movies are a fascinating subset of survival movies. In addition to all the apocalyptic tropes of gathering supplies and fortifying your barracks, you’ve got the added element of contamination that is still a threat. It Comes At Night succeeds in its goal of making you feel as miserable as its characters feel, so it is effective but I don’t desire feeling miserable and I wouldn’t recommend it.
Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) euthanize and destroy their infected father/grandfather at the beginning of the movie. They catch Will (Christopher Abbott) breaking into their desolate house in the woods, and invite his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andy (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to stay with them and share supplies.
Writer/director Trey Edward Shults captures the mood of paranoia, peppered with moments of Travis idealistically hoping to bond with this new family. It’s no surprise that it only takes a very minor incident to light this powderkeg. It begins with the characters rationally talking out the unknown factors, but quickly becomes us vs. them. You can see where each family is coming from. If one thought the other was infected they would have to protect their family at all costs.
It Comes At Night is lose-lose because whichever family prevails, their family is still destroyed over letting the other die. So you can wallow in this misery with Paul and Will’s families if you like, but I don’t want to. And I don’t usually get depressed by downer movies. I can distance myself enough to appreciate the value of tragedy. So that’s saying a lot if It Comes At Night penetrated my objective mind, but I don’t want it there and I won’t champion it.
As much as there are movies that are so focused on being real that they become distracting from the story, there are movies that are too focused on being bleak. Nihilism has a place, but it doesn’t work if all you feel is the movie telling you, “It’s bleak, man. It’s bleak.” Yes, I know it’s bleak. Now what?
Some of Shults’ aesthetics from Krisha are present in this more mainstream film. Travis dreams in a letterboxed format, and the film is already 2.35:1 so it’s masked even further. That also gives away when something scary happens, we already know it’s a dream because of the black bars. But then, the black bars and reality break their own rules, so I don’t quite get that theme. Is it as simple as the world becomes a nightmare? I hope I can give it a little more credit than that.
This is how you make a contained movie with a small cast. The house is creepy when it’s silent but for creaks and footsteps. You feel the hopelessness of these characters, but there’s no catharsis. It’s just persistently hopeless. It’s bleak, man. It’s bleak.