In the spectrum of horror, isolation functions as an evil muse that can turn man into monster. In the quiet of solitude, there builds a cognitive dissonance to anything or anyone that exists outside of that carefully controlled bubble. It Comes at Night tells a story about what happens when one dares encroach on that solitude, how the shared human bond can so easily fray amid conflict, how we would rather cling to insular fear than reach out to those in a mutual struggle.
There may be no more relevant fable for modern America – ruthlessly divided, quick to take up arms in both a figurative and literal sense, and stifled by ingrained fear of people who look different or sound different or come from different parts of the globe. One needn’t do more than glance at the cascade of grim daily news headlines to get a sense that society seems to be imploding, and like a public service, It Comes at Night offers a not-encouraging glimpse into human interaction post-implosion. Bottom line: it gets worse before it gets better.
The film’s marketing pitches an evocative slow-burn that is just oblique enough to suggest untold dread. Anyone walking into the theater expecting some grandly crystallized answers will be left wanting, since It Comes at Night is more about questions than conclusions, dropping us into a stark scenario and letting the characters’ behavior fill in all the necessary details. The narrative is clearly post-apocalyptic, but the film wastes no time discussing how the world arrived at such a state; it’s more concerned with how the remaining survivors function within such a stark environment.
For Paul (Joel Edgerton), that means maintaining a steady sense of paranoia, tending to his carefully controlled homestead with wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Their rules are simple: stay aware of your surroundings at all times, don’t go outside at night unless you have a partner, and NEVER open the red door. What a red door it is, gothic and isolated amid the drab wood of the family’s bunker, an icon of anxiety. Yet, for the intense preponderance on what might be lurking outside, the only person who ever attempts to enter is Will (Christopher Abbott), another survivor, on the hunt for clean water to sustain his own family. After putting Will through a vetting process – which, for Paul, consists of beating him unconscious, stripping him down, and tying him to a tree overnight – the two men form a tentative alliance.
It Comes at Night is all about just how tentative such an alliance can be, especially among people for whom mistrust and paranoia is a way of life. Paul’s relentless manner of protecting his family is noble in concept, but his inner terror threatens to shatter the delicate balance he’s crafted. Fraying familial alliances were at the center of writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ debut feature, Krisha, and here he goes deeper down the rabbit hole, probing the ever-growing fear of Other that infects the social order and transforms into hate. The red door, ever the symbol of that which should be feared and avoided, is really just a fulcrum that perpetuates dread, scaring us awake when we should be at rest, distorting our perception until we can’t distinguish legitimate threats from those we only convince ourselves to fear. So what comes at night? Uncertainty, suspicion, and fear, traits that consume a person’s entire being and result in that most terrifying of events: the loss of humanity.