Here in the South, we have a saying – “Bless her heart” or “Bless his heart.” We use this as a precursor to saying something negative about someone. Example: “Gladys, bless her heart, has just never had the best taste in paisley linens.” By the Rules of Southern Etiquette, using this phrase cancels out anything negative we might say afterward. It’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, if you will, and universally recognized if your entire universe is The South. So, with that explanation out of the way, I offer these three words to It Comes at Night: Bless Its Heart.
I didn’t just ‘dislike’ It Comes at Night – I actively dislike It Comes at Night. It’s the kind of ‘prestige’ horror flick that carries with it great reviews and ‘great buzz’ and then never really showcases how it got either. I understand why A24 decided to release this film wide. They are hoping for the same sort of groundswell that came their way with The Witch, a far superior horror flick from last year. It Comes at Night is no The Witch. It’s a film we’ve seen 1,000 times before – an end of the world virus that has people doing whatever they have to do to survive. In fact, I saw the same set-up in a film called Here Alone last year that was far more effective.
The director here is a talented one – Trey Edward Shults, whose Krisha was sort of a revelation. It was a family drama that felt like a horror film. With Krisha, Shults showcased his abilities to build tension and dread in the simplest of situations. He turned a Thanksgiving turkey into one of the most suspenseful sequences of any year. So, it probably seemed natural that he would tackle an actual horror film (and I use the words ‘horror film’ loosely) as his next project. But why on earth he decided to tackle a pseudo-zombie, pseudo-apocaplague picture is beyond me. And then to bring nothing new to the table? Talk about squandering the good will you garnered. That said, the film obviously cost little to make and will probably turn a profit for A24. This is saddening to me. It does not deserve what it will surely receives. It’s forgettable horror.
The central action here revolves around some sort of virus that has wiped out most of the population. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), live together in a boarded up house in the middle of the woods. They’ve survived, thus far, based on Paul’s stringent rules and attention to detail. But the film opens with sickness having already entered their lives, as Paul is forced to take care of his sick father-in-law. Unlike films like 28 Days Later, It Comes at Night handles its virus in a more subtle fashion. We never see a full blown case of the illness, unless what Travis sees in his dreams are reality. In fact, Travis’s dreams are really where we get this somewhat misleading title.
One night, a man – Will (Christopher Abbott) – breaks into their home, catching everyone off-guard. After a couple days of pseudo-torture, Paul agrees to go fetch the rest of Will’s family and bring them back to live in the house with them. That family includes Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Paul doesn’t fully trust Will and the reverse is probably true, but the two families attempt to make their cohabitation work, that is until the red door is left open and all hell breaks loose. That’s all I’ll give you for plot, because there are some mechanisms here that are better left a surprise. But don’t expect anything earth-shattering because that is not what It Comes at Night is about. It, like Krisha, is about mood and tone and a very deliberate pacing the worked far better in the former.
Without the performances, It Comes at Night would be a straight-to-video picture all the way; a weak script brought to life by talented performers. Joel Edgerton has quickly asserted himelf as one of the finest actors working today and, here, his Paul is the driving force of the entire picture. We watch him do terrible things but understand why he does them. He’s the most ‘monster’ that we get to see, but we can empathize. Christopher Abbott is perfectly cast as the mildly-mysterious Will, whose scenes with Edgerton provide most of the real tension in the flick. But it’s really Kelvin Harrison, Jr., as Travis, who steals the picture. He’s our eyes, as an audience, and he just radiates this sort of youthful curiosity and horror throughout. It Comes at Night would have worked better as a coming-of-age film set in a post-apocalyptic setting. That’s something original. That’s something I would have been delighted to watch unfold.
But that is not It Comes at Night. This is a film about human nature and what human beings will do to survive and protect what’s theirs. The script is bare bones and generic in its formula. The violence is neither unexpected nor especially compelling. The pacing that worked to such great effect in Krisha fails here because it’s continuing to write a check that the filmmaker just cannot cash. We have an idea how the film is going to end and it pretty much ends that way, with few surprises along the way. It boggles my mind that this film is being praised as a ‘horror masterpiece.’ It’s barely a horror film, save for a couple of dream sequences. I know, I know – the real horror is what we don’t see. I firmly believe that. It’s what made The Witch so successful. But that means jack squat when what you’ve led us to imagine is something we’ve seen 1,000 times before. I can’t use my imagination when you’ve taken all of your imagination out of your picture.
So: BLESS ITS HEART. It means well. Trey Edward Shults means well. He is a talented filmmaker and will have a successful career, I’m sure. Despite diminishing box-office returns, It Comes at Night might prove to be damned successful for him and everyone involved. But should it? There are far better horror films being released on VOD every month, films like Here Alone. That film deserved a wide release as much or more so than this one. And a lot of horror fanatics are going to stumble into this flick expecting The Witch and be sorely disappointed. Do yourself a favor: stay at home, watch 28 Days Later and Here Alone, and you’ve dedicated yourself to a better evening of cinema.
It Comes at Night isn’t bad. Not even close. It’s just totally uninspired.