There's an apocalypse happening in It Comes at Night but we never get to see it. We see and hear only faint inklings of its terrors. What we do see — the desperation of a family trying to stay alive — is far more terrifying than any monster or zombie lurking in the darkness.
It Comes at Night examines the idea of community, how one grows and what can make it wither. At first blush, the world doesn't look abjectly broken in the second film from Trey Edward Shults (Krisha). Set largely inside a beautiful, sprawling country house tucked away in the woods, It Comes at Night follows a small nuclear family trying to eke out a continued existence as the outside world crumbles. Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) suffer a painful loss at the very beginning of the movie, when Sarah's father Bud dies after wasting away from a freakish disease. Shown only in intermittent bursts, Bud's garishly sick form is the only explicit sign of the apocalypse that we see.
Their surroundings in the deep forest are beautiful. But, after they bury Bud, the nuclear family — and their dog Stanley — have to remain ever watchful, lest something foreign come in from beyond the treeline and upset their delicate balance. Such a threat comes in the form of another human male named Will (Christopher Abbott), who initially makes contact with the family by breaking in and scrounging for food. This causes Paul to treat him as hostile, tying him to a tree, shoving guns into his face and barking questions about why he's there. Eventually, Will earns Paul's trust and they fetch his wife and toddler son, creating a two-group living situation where people start to bond.
Thematically, in showing how apocalypses make everyday folk capable of monstrous behaviours, this movie isn't necessarily breaking new ground. It Comes at Night excels at pushing its narrative focus into extreme close-up, establishing a sense of everyday routine and using that conceit to create characters who are simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive. Kelvin Harrison's turn as Travis is the film's breakout performance, quietly seething with deeply felt emotions. Travis doesn't know what kind of world he's going to inherit. He sleepwalks and eavesdrops through the house, struggling with loss and uncertainty. At the same time, he becomes a surrogate older brother and takes in the presence of a woman who isn't his mother, buoyed by fraternal love and haunted by surreptitious lust.
The new horror movie shows people caring for each other as best they can and one of the film's strengths is in showing the precautions required to survive in painstaking detail. The horror genre thrives on explicit and unspoken rules and, here, they all come across as down-home, common-sense edicts. Wear gas masks. Set up decontamination. Earn trust. Share with the group. No one open the red door. Tell the truth. It's a common thing to scream, "Why would they do that?" when watching a character break a rule in a horror movie. It Comes at Night purposefully leaves some itchy questions unanswered but still manages to show you exactly why characters in desperate situations break those important rules.
Broadly, It Comes at Night asks familiar core post-apocalypse questions: What happens when the ones we love become monsters? Will we have the distance to recognise it, the will to not be swept along and the strength to try and turn them back into something recognisably human? It gives heart-breaking answers to them while tantalising the audience to create their own maps of the characters' decay. The tension the movie generates is incredible and it explodes in moments that will linger in your mind for a long time. There's sickness in the air and air gets in anywhere eventually, no matter how good your rules and precautions are.