'It Comes at Night' builds an atmosphere of almost unbearable psychological horror

By Michael O'Sullivan The Washington Post - Updated: June 9, 2017 at 10:25 am • Published: June 9, 2017 0
photo - (L-r)  Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott, Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Carmen Ejogo and Griffin Robert Faulkner in "It Comes at Night." MUST CREDIT:  Eric McNatt, A24
(L-r) Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott, Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Carmen Ejogo and Griffin Robert Faulkner in "It Comes at Night." MUST CREDIT: Eric McNatt, A24

Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr.; directed by Trey Edward Shults; 97 minutes; R for violence, disturbing images and strong language.

Anyone expecting "It Comes at Night" to match the cheesy promise of its name must be unfamiliar with the work of the film's writer and director, Trey Edward Shults.

That's not surprising, given that Shults' only previous feature, the family drama "Krisha," was not widely seen, despite garnering several nominations and awards for the first-time filmmaker. With that 2015 debut, about an addict trying to reconnect with her estranged relatives, Shults demonstrated a flair for intense psychological confrontation - one he puts into powerful new service in this work, a deeply creepy change of direction.

"It Comes at Night" will feel superficially familiar to fans of post-apocalyptic thrillers. Set in an isolated rustic home after some plaguelike illness appears to have wiped out much of humanity, the movie focuses, with unflinching scrutiny, on the relationship between two groups of survivors: Paul, his wife and their 17-year-old son (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr., respectively) and the family they have welcomed, reluctantly, into their sterile, fortified refuge.

The second family consists of Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife (Riley Keough) and their son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) - all of whom appear to be free from whatever disease has ravaged the rest of the world.

But these camps know little about each other, and the disease, which any visitor could have brought into the house without knowing it, kills rapidly and without warning. True to its title, much of the film takes place at night, when doubt, fear, nightmares and paranoia can be their most corrosive.

Paul's teenage son, Travis, and Sarah, Will's sexy young wife, suffer from insomnia. One of their scenes crackles with sexual tension that takes on new dimensions of danger, given that the disease method of transmission is unclear.

Edgerton's Paul has shown himself to be impulsive to a fault, setting up a situation in which mistrust metastasizes into something much more terrible. As he did in "Krisha," cinematographer Drew Daniels uses lots of handheld camera, this time with lanterns and gun-mounted lights that swing this way and that. "It Comes at Night" teeters between delicious atmosphere and almost unbearable tension.

That may not be enough for some viewers who have been acclimated to expect the kind of payoff that often is accompanied by screaming and bloodshed in the sort of film viewers expect this to be this sort of film.

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