It Comes at Night is a movie for those who found The Road excessively sentimental.
Seriously. You'll be praying for a roving band of cannibals to lighten the mood, or vary the pitch.
This intense horror-thriller is set in the fortified home of a man (Joel Edgerton) who lives deep in the woods. We sense Paul's an off-the-grid type to begin with, and now – in the immediate aftermath of a plague, with the utilities out forever and the world in chaos – he has boarded the windows, sealed the exits, and stands ready to shoot.
You get an idea of his resolve in the first scene. A family member has caught the disease, and dad deals with the situation with a chilling efficiency – gas mask, rubber gloves, a gun, a wheelbarrow, a ditch, and gasoline.
And then there were three — Paul, his wife (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kevin Harrison). Conversation at dinner is a bit strained, informed by the unspoken acknowledgment that if you get sick in this house (the boils show up on your hands and face), you don't get the cold compress and the thermometer. You get the wheelbarrow.
Naturally, things go hard for uninvited guests. A man (Christopher Abbott) breaks in and is captured and subjected to extreme rendition – his name is Will, he claims to be scrounging for food for his family, waiting a few miles up the road. They are purportedly healthy, they have chickens and goats, and so, in exchange for a source of milk and eggs, Will's family moves in.
Soon they're one big incredibly unhappy and paranoid family (any resemblance to the nation you currently inhabit is probably intentional).
Is Will telling the truth?
Will anyone get sick?
What happens then?
Wary Paul goes nowhere without his gun. But his son is intrigued by the visitors, and he listens to their conversations, playful and intimate, through the floorboards in the attic, where he tries to sleep but often cannot.
He is — understandably — plagued by nightmares. Director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) frequently uses them as prologue to a new sequence, keeping us slightly off balance, teetering between depictions of the subconscious and the movie's reality, only slightly less surreal.
One night, he meets Will's beautiful wife (Riley Keough) in the kitchen. They share a laugh, then she withdraws when she becomes suddenly aware of what she's wearing, the scent that is on her, that Travis is 17, and that a fraught situation needn't get any more complicated.
It Comes at Night is like that – small, vivid moments, squeezed into a small physical and dramatic space, then tightened with a vice of suspense and dread.
Everyone senses the pitiless triage of the situation, the murderous internal calculations already made. Both Paul and Will are prepared to act ruthlessly in their own self-interest, ready for what comes.
And it doesn't, by the way, always come at night. So what is the portent of the title?
A darkness of spirit, fed by fear, suspicion, maybe ignorance. If there were an inoculation for this plague, the anti-vax crowd won the day.
Now the world is upside down. Everyone is vulnerable, everyone is fearful, everyone is armed.
Here's a movie that shows you how that ends.
It Comes at Night
Directed by Trey Edward Shults. With Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo. Distributed by A24.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
Parent's guide: R (violence, disturbing images and language).