It Comes at Night puts a family in a Petri dish and focuses a microscope on it. “Come take a look at this,” it says, its face betraying nothing about what you’re going to see. Is it an insidious virus? A cure? Something baffling? Or some meaningful new discovery?
At first glance, it just looks like another post-apocalypse.
As a narrative device, apocalypses strip away the complications of social connections, careers, consumerism, entertainment. They focus on the essentials of being human, minus the tangle of civilization wrapped around us. Stripped of that skin, reduced to the primal, we must look like monsters. But primal can mean savage and it can mean essential. It can imply cruelty or the fundamentals of our survival as a species. Could it mean both? Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is equally and powerfully about the primal forces of brutality and love.
But where most post-apocalypses shrug and veer off into freedom fantasies or survival procedurals, It Comes at Night has no interest in exploring those elements. It’s interested only in its characters, sometimes even to the exclusion of what has actually happened. Motivation is more important than events, which is probably why my audience grumbled audibly when the movie ended. When It Comes at Night waved them over to look into the microscope, they thought they were going to see another Walking Dead style soap opera. They leaned over and squinted into the eyepiece. Yep, a progressively mixed raced couple raising a kid after the apocalypse, dealing with whatever jerk showed up this season.
Instead, they were confronted with an overwhelming question. Should a family protect itself at all costs, or should it reach out to make the world a better place? What good does it do to raise a child without making the world worth bringing a child into? I’m not convinced director and writer Trey Edward Shults has an answer to that question. It’s a rare arthouse movie that simply struggles with a question, that accepts it might not have a point to make. I get the sense Shults is young enough to not know and smart enough to know he doesn’t know. So his movie is simply an expression of the dilemma. It Comes at Night will you tell you more about yourself than the filmmaker.
Not to say it feels sloppy, unfocused, or even unresolved. Not in the least. It never shrugs. It has the same confident tone as other movies by remarkable new directors like Robert Eggers’ The Witch, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, and Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist, all movies that resemble It Comes at Night in important but sometimes subtle ways. The movies it most resembles are Jeff Nichols’ studies of the vulnerability a man must accept if he’s going to care for a family, Take Shelter and Loving. It’s no surprise Shults cut his teeth working cameras for Jeff Nichols and Terence Malick productions. You can tell he was paying attention.