It Comes at Night is billed as a horror movie, and it’s a pretty creepy one at that – full of tension and dread and stomach-turning imagery.
But writer-director Trey Edward Shults doesn’t just want to scare you in the theater. His hope is that his film will linger with you long after the credits roll.
His latest film stars Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a tight-knit family getting by in the wake of an unexplained apocalypse. They keep to themselves in a remote cabin in the woods, maintaining a strict order to keep themselves safe. (Among the most important rules: never go outside at night.) It’s a lonely and monotonous way to live, but hey, at least they’re still kicking.
Their lives are interrupted one day by the arrival of a stranger (Christopher Abbott) seeking shelter for his own family, which consists of a wife (Riley Keough), and a young son (Griffin Robert Faulkner). And, well, we’ll leave it to you to watch the movie and find out what happens next.
It Comes at Night avoids getting overtly political. There’s no explanation offered as to what caused the apocalypse, or what, exactly, everyone is so afraid of. There’s little talk of local or national leadership, and none of the characters discuss what’s happening with the outside world (that is, if they even know themselves).
But it only takes a short leap to see the uncomfortable parallels between our world and theirs. A thick air of paranoia poisons even the most innocuous-seeming interactions. In response, the characters box themselves in tighter and tighter, in desperate search of certainty and security.
What’s truly disturbing, though, is that through it all, the characters don’t seem like monsters. To the contrary, their actions are uncomfortably, tragically, terrifyingly human.
Which, based on my conversation with Shults, seems to be kind of the point. Shults originally started writing It Comes at Night in 2014, inspired by his personal experience with the death of his father. As the process went on, however, his attention turned to something broader.
“I had this fascination with genocide and how normal people can commit awful things,” he said. “I was referencing cycles of violence in our history, in our past, and how these horrible cycles keep happening.” The common link, said Shults, was regret. “Regret is what I became fascinated with – thinking about that in a larger context.”
If Shults’ It Comes at Night suddenly seems super-relevant in the age of Donald Trump, “fake news,” “build the wall,” it’s not alone. We’ve seen a smattering of recent releases that use genre tropes as avenues for social commentary, including Jordan Peele’s Get Out (a horror thriller that serves up sharp commentary on race relations) and Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (which uses giant monsters to examine toxic masculinity).
Which, of course, is nothing new. “I think all movies are a product of the time they’re made in,” said Shults. In the case of his own film, he admitted, the parallels to current events just kind of … happened. “As I’ve been working on this movie I just got really sad because it seems more and more timely. But I’m excited to see what kind of art comes out of these times now.”
Indeed, Shults explained, It Comes at Night was informed less by the now and more by the past – and the unsettling way it seemed to keep repeating itself. “[I was] trying to understand any kind of commonality in this stuff and how it keeps happening,” he said. “I’m fascinated by how groups of people do heinous things to groups of people, and then I started thinking about just how there’s a primal tribe mentality that’s ingrained in us, and that we came from, and how we can come back.”
In the U.S., that “tribe mentality” often manifests as racism – which makes it interesting that the main characters in It Comes at Night are a mixed-race family. Shults told me he didn’t necessarily set out to comment on race. He simply cast actors he liked (and who could blame him, when that cast includes Edgerton, Ejogo, and the young but exceptional Harrison?).
But it’s hard to ignore in the context of a conversation about the all-too-human fear of outsiders, as Shults readily acknowledged.
“To me, I thought that was interesting,” he continued. “Especially with a movie like this, with what it’s getting at thematically and how it’s so contained, what I thought was interesting was just that it’s not a movie about race – let’s not make it about race. Regardless of race, it’s about people. There’s still stuff we have to be careful of, that can pull people apart.”
That human aspect, to Shults, was the hook. While there’s no shortage of dystopian or post-apocalyptic narratives in pop culture right now, It Comes at Night offers a more intimate perspective on the end of the world. “I think a lot of apocalypse stories that I’m drawn to are personal apocalypses, whether it’s like Take Shelter or Melancholia,” he said, though he also cites The Shining, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead, and The Act of Killing as inspirations.
And what It Comes at Night has to say about humanity is not, frankly, all that positive. Shults readily agreed with me that It Comes at Night is a brutal watch.
Paradoxically, however, that’s where he finds the hope in his own film. “If it’s bleak, and the material’s bleak – which, I think if you’re gonna approach this honestly, it needs to be – I think the positive out of that is the discussion that can come out of it, the conversation.”
Those talks – about how much of our own humanity we’re willing to sacrifice for the illusion of security, what those choices mean for the future of our race, whether there’s any way out of this hellish cycle of suspicion and anger – feel especially necessary now, and Shults has definitely noticed.
“The fear in our culture right now scares me, and what fear does to people,” Shults said. While he’s not sure how the world could end – a disease? An economic collapse? – he sounds grimly certain of what’ll happen next.
“Once those things happen, people will finish each other off, probably,” he said. “Which sounds awful, and I hope that does not happen.”