The discouraging reality regarding Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night is that it happens to suggest everything but means, ultimately, nothing. The film’s practices far exceed its theory; it is something that can be appreciated, should be appreciated, as a formal object. But crack the surface of its richly composed exterior and silence the thumping of its percussive and kinetic score and it exposes itself to be a terribly hollow exercise. It’s not to suggest that It Comes at Night is without merit, but rather that its thematic poverty is wildly disproportionate to its formal sophistication. Shults is a skilled craftsman but there’s something regrettably amateurish about the way he communicates his ideas.
In what would be the raison d'etre of the film year, It Comes at Night reads as an elegy. It opens with the image of an elderly man decomposing, his body covered in dark boils and sclera clouded in a rich black. Shults will deploy a series of eerie images as the man is taken by faceless others, their expressions obscured by their respirator masks, as the elderly man is wheelbarrowed into a forest and dumped into a plot. Pillow shoved against his face, he’s put out of his misery, though his looming specter will serve as a cautionary and unavoidable visage throughout the picture.
From here we are introduced to a family living adjacent to the plot in a boarded-up home. The patriarch, Paul (Joel Edgerton), matriarch Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and their dog Stanley lead solitary lives as we begin to piece together the details of their world: an obscure disease has wiped out a great deal of the population; the elderly man, Sarah’s father, among the causalities. They’re creatures of habit, subscribing to a rigid regimen that insures their safety. That is until Will (Christopher Abbot) breaks into their shelter, claiming to be in search of water for his family who are hiding out in an abandoned home in the forest.
Shults will briefly fixate on Paul’s decision to invite Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keuogh), and their young son into his home. An intriguing political commentary on the nature of humanism surfaces, especially given that Will appeals to Paul’s virtues as a family man in rhetoric that reeks of conservative American ideals. But this refugee concern is only momentarily touched upon with Shults opting for a broader and frankly vapid examination of grief and paranoia. Whereas something like Jordan Peele’s Get Out invited this paranoia through a rich subtext of racial and political ambiguities, Shults’ ambiguity is the result of an absence of subtext, rendering the picture as blankly vague.
What confuses the proceedings even further is how Shults centers his action on inaction, where Travis serves as the lantern-carrying observer haunted by the death of his grandfather. The variations that Shults plays with Travis’ nightmares and his waking life are nifty in design – the subtle adjustment in aspect ratios and deployment of telephoto lenses, compounded by variations in the sound design – but these are cosmetic devices that inform explicitly obvious thematic intentions. It amounts to something transparent and not particularly compelling. While some will suggest that It Comes at Night’s economic and matter-of-fact qualities provide a raw and vivid experience, I’d suggest that just because the film is efficient doesn’t mean that it has anything especially interesting to say.