Review: It Comes at Night

Frustratingly coy genre blender needs more depth to care about. Ultimately disappointing.

Sounding as if squarely placed in the horror genre, perhaps the vague echo of Newt from Aliens is enough to suggest a sci-fi bent to the new movie from American writer/director Trey Edward Shults, which in truth edges closer to dystopia.

Following his well-regarded SXSW debut feature Krisha, the extremely slow-burn, claustrophobic thriller stars Brit Carmen Ejogo and Australian Joel Edgerton as a couple, Paul and Sarah, holed up in a big old cabin in the woods somewhere in America with their teenage son, the vaguely creepy attic stalker Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr).

All but empty, spare an on-the-nose hellish choice in paintings, there’s is a fortress-like existence of rationing while cowering behind locked doors and boarded up windows. We only ever get the vaguest of hints why.

Opening with a startling scene depicting the laboured breathing of Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), he appears to be slowly and painfully dying of some sort of plague, necessitating the use of gas masks. His traumatic fate sets the film off on an unrelentingly grim trajectory as this already at wits end family, possibly facing down the end of humanity, stews in morbid paranoia.

This unbearable tension is broken by the midnight break in of Girls star Christopher Abbott’s Will. To say that he is not made welcome by a fiercely protective Paul would be an understatement, but eventually his pleas to help his similarly stranded family Kim (Riley Keogh) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) are answered, mostly because they have goats and chickens. But when they move in, fledgling friendships disintegrate into toxic mistrust.

Much like the name, how the world fell remains wilfully obtuse and that would be fine – not all films need obvious answers – if Shults gave a little more elsewhere. The set-up is far from fresh and its jumps, barring a couple of great wood sequences that are similarly coy about what might be out there, largely rely on an increasingly irksome ‘boy who cried wolf’ trick with Travis’ overused dreams.

With Edgerton in serious danger of being typecast as the surly, silent type, the thinly sketched characters and an almost entirely absent sense of hope means there’s little to lose beyond lives hardly endeared to the audience.

While It Comes at Night partly resembles the brilliantly bleak British nuclear holocaust drama Threads and also Dan Trachtenberg’s broader scope 10 Cloverfield Lane, both offered more to care about. Admittedly nerve-wracking to a point, it treads far too much water and this arms length approach is ultimately frustrating, with an abrupt ending that feels less ambiguous, more half-formed.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords