Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: "It Comes at Night"

Last year I saw a tiny independent film called “Krisha” written, directed, edited and co-starring Trey Edward Schults. It was shot on a Kickstarter shoestring, had a cast largely made up of Schults’ relatives and took place in the family home. I raved about the amazing debut of an intriguing new filmmaker, and ended my review with a simple, unprecedented request: “More, please.”

More has been granted: “It Comes at Night,” an eerie psychological horror/thriller that gets under your skin quickly, and burrows.

Schults’ first studio film is a triumph of unease. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so uncomfortable sitting in a movie theater. Its pervading sense of paranoia and doom leeches into your body like a dank fog creeping up out of the fetid swamp of primordial humanity.

“It Comes at Night” has a familiar premise, but achieves its ends through a gradual build-up of mood rather than the standard short spurts of shocking violence.

It’s set a few years after some kind of apocalypse that has claimed most of mankind. There are scattered pockets of survivors here and there, and even they’re not truly sure what happened. People started becoming ill, the disease spready rapidly, setting off a panic, followed by waves of death. The only way to prevent it seems to be not to interact with others.

Even then, death comes stalking. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Travis, a teenager living with his family in the basement of a lonesome house in the woods. As the story opens, his grandfather (David Pendleton) is rasping out his last breaths, horrid sores covering every inch of his body. Wearing hazmat suits, he and his father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), carry the dying man out to the forest in a wheelbarrow.

They carry a gun and a shovel; no more needs be said.

Travis shared a bedroom with his grandpa, so visions of contracting the sickness invade his consciousness. Much of the movie involves our perspective slipping in and out of the boy’s waking and dream states, so we’re not entirely clear what is real and what is imagined.

Carmen Ejogo is Sarah, the wife and mother. They gather as a family around the eating table in dim lamplight to discuss their problems and concerns. Dad is clearly in charge and orders strict protocols: No going out at night, never be alone outdoors, don’t talk to anybody, keep weapons close at hand.

We get the lay of the land when someone breaks into the house, foraging for food. Will (Christopher Abbott) is in many ways Paul’s counterpart: a patriarch trying to keep his family alive and safe. Later, we’ll meet Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their toddler son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) -- though I’ll leave it to you to discover how.

The two families’ parallel desires quickly come into conflict, and hard choices must be made -- and unexpected opportunities weighed.

It’s clear Paul and Sarah are prepared to do what they must, including kill. Travis has a kind heart and is inclined to trust instinctively. He’s grown to the brink of manhood knowing only the tiny microcosm of his family, and is eager to explore the greater world. He spies on Will and Kim’s intimate moments, and is intrigued by the presence of woman only a few years older than himself.

Schults carefully maps out this suffocating little world, showing us the gripping dread that lurks at the edges. The house becomes another character, a grubby hidey-hole where the family bars itself against certain death -- I thought of Anne Frank -- separated by a bright red door heralding the dangers waiting outside.

Fear can help you to survive, but is it any way for people to live? “It Comes at Night” explores the distressing no man’s land where instinct and empathy cross paths.

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