It Comes at Night, the second feature from director Trey Edward Shults, is a movie for which its reviews almost need to carry a disclaimer. It’s important for film critics to make mention, especially in cases for low-budget movies, when the marketing is inaccurately portraying the product playing in theaters. It Comes at Night‘s marketing is grossly inaccurate—to the point that audiences will go in expecting something very different from what they get. So, know this: It Comes at Night is more of a paranoia thriller than a straight-up horror movie. It’s haunting, insightful, and suspenseful—but it’s not traditionally scary. So, just know that going in.
Set shortly after a disease has spread and caused untold numbers of deaths, It Comes at Night follows one family and their attempts to survive. The opening scene sees the family—which consists of a father (Joel Edgerton), mother (Carmen Ejogo), and teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—have to kill the teenager’s grandfather, as he’s become infected with this disease. It’s an immediate way to put us into this world, show us the gravity of the situation, and set the mood.
Shortly after, a man (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home. He’s captured, claims that he thought it was abandoned, and needs water for his wife (Riley Keough) and child (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families team up, but there’s always unease between them—one wrong step, one lie, one betrayal, and it could all go sideways. And that’s the tension on which It Comes at Night thrives.
Almost every scene builds suspense, either through its cinematography and editing—it’s great at that—or with its characters actions. Not a whole lot “happens” from scene to scene, but it’s the small interactions and decisions that you know are building to something more explosive. Well, relatively explosive, since this isn’t the kind of movie to have a huge shootout near the end. What we get instead is actually more satisfying, since it has so much build. The final shot of It Comes at Night is one that you won’t be able to get out of your head for a long time.
It Comes at Night is a tense, powerful, insightful, and atmospheric movie—but it isn’t particularly scary. That’s not a criticism; it’s a statement aimed at those of you who believe that its marketing has accurately represented the product being released in theaters.
As for the actual “horror” elements? Well, they almost exclusively come in dream sequences. The teenage boy wanders around the house at night, suffering from insomnia, but eventually gets to sleep and sees less-than-ideal images whenever he dreams. They’re usually related to the occurrences from the day before, and look real for a while until—bam!—someone’s vomiting blood, or someone previously killed is suddenly alive. These come in short bursts and don’t overwhelm the rest of the film. They also functioned as the basis of the film’s advertising, which is really too bad.
Setting people’s expectations up like that just leads to disappointment when they get something different. It doesn’t matter if the film is still really good, and It Comes at Night is, if those expectations aren’t met. And once that happens, it’s tougher to appreciate a psychological thriller about what people will do to survive in tense situations. Yeah, it’s not that scary, but the movie itself rarely tries to be. We just expect it to be, thanks to the marketing.
Joel Edgerton has quietly turned into a deep and reliable actor, offering both qualities in It Comes at Night, in which he has to convey so much with just a look—anything more would escalate already tense situations. He’s playing a stoic man who isn’t quite sure how to act in this situation, but knows he has to do what he can to keep his family alive. Kelvin Harrison Jr., meanwhile, is the more emotional—the heart of the film, if you will, and is just fantastic. Ejogo, Abbott, and Keough are pushed into smaller roles. Critical ones, but Edgerton and Harrison Jr. deserve the majority of the praise.
It Comes at Night is a tense, powerful, insightful, and atmospheric movie—but it isn’t particularly scary. That’s not a criticism; it’s a statement aimed at those of you who believe that its marketing has accurately represented the product being released in theaters. This is a paranoia thriller about what people will do to survive—and there are some semi-scary nightmare sequences scattered throughout. It’s wonderfully crafted and has great acting. Just know what you’re getting into. Then go watch a fantastic movie.
Conclusion: It Comes at Night is a great sophomore film for Trey Edward Shults.
Recommendation: Adjust your expectations not for quality but for content, then go see It Comes at Night.