There’s a specific sub-genre of horror movies, the “siege” type scenario, the kind of movie where people are essentially locked into one area, one house or one cabin (or in the case of Dawn of the Dead, a mall), and they are unable to leave because the world around them is crumbling and rife with threat. In the case of It Comes at Night, there is a deadly, highly-communicable disease. Contact with the disease is, as of now, pretty much 100% lethal. In the vein of George A. Romero or John Carpenter, the disease isn’t the monster—the disease just does what a disease does—the real monster is humanity.
Something John Carpenter has said again and again is that it’s so easy to say that monsters are out there, that they live in the shadows, that they dwell in the darkness. But what’s really scary is the truth, that the monsters are already among us and we are them.
It Comes at Night takes this hard truth a step further by crafting a plot where people who are essentially good must partake in unbelievably ugly acts, acting out of fear. Fear is a powerful weapon humanity uses against itself. Fear is responsible for genocide, murder and war. When the shit hits the fan, it’s not the result of a “bad guy” it’s out of paranoia and mutual distrust and the need to protect one’s own family at any cost.
Joel Edgerton plays Paul, the no-nonsense paterfamilias with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The three of them live together in a large house in the woods. They do what they must in order to survive. The film begins with Sarah’s father dying of an illness. Paul and Travis wear gas masks and gloves and take him outside to say their goodbyes, shoot him and then burn him with gasoline to neutralize the virus.
That night, an unexpected visitor breaks into the house. Will (Christopher Abbott), thinking that the dark house was deserted, attempts to loot the domicile for any available supplies. Paul knocks him unconscious with the butt of a shotgun, ties him to a tree and questions him about his motives. He learns that Will has a wife and a son and that they also have animals for food. Will proposes a trade, but a more effective arrangement is to have Will and his family move into the house with them where they can effectively work together to survive—strength in numbers.
Paul gives his son Travis some advice regarding their new housemates: Never trust anyone that isn’t family. Paul begins to see some inconsistencies in Will’s story. Will said he had been staying with his brother, but later says that he was an only child. When he elaborates, he says that he meant that he was staying with his brother-in-law but that they were so close that he just referred to him as his brother. It’s an honest-sounding answer, but is he indeed being sincere? When a shootout that left two men dead happened earlier, did Will know them or were they total strangers?
Sometimes it’s refreshing to have a movie trust me that I’m smart enough to answer some questions on my own, especially the burning question that’s going to plague every viewer who watches It Comes at Night: Who opened the front door? In the film, it’s of the utmost important to leave the red door at the front closed at all times. It’s the only way out to the world, that scary place swimming with potential murderers and disease. Someone left it open and jeopardized the house’s safety. It could have been an accident, and it could have been malicious. Was it someone within the house or was it someone out there? Could it have been whatever attacked the dog out in the woods?
Trey Edward Shults, who wrote and directed It Comes at Night, understands what makes a plot like this tick and that in order for everything to play out, we as an audience require realism from all the characters. No one in this movie (except maybe the two nameless gunmen near the beginning of the film) are what you would call “bad guys.” No one behaves monstrously for the sole purpose of bringing about misery or for selfish purposes. If anything happens, it’s because they’re afraid and they’re taking a step that they think is the best means of resolving a conflict. It’s sort of like a reexamination of The Banality of Evil, and suggesting that it’s something everyone, everyone is capable of. It’s not just humanity in general, it’s possible that you, too, are capable of such things.
It Comes at Night isn’t a “fun” horror movie. It’s very serious, timely and, dare I say, an important one. It’s also one of the best films of the year.