IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017, Trey Edward Shults)
Few horror movies lack subtext. But even some of the best ones make their metaphors obvious — whether they be political, religious, or existential. IT COMES AT NIGHT, directed by a kid from Texas who isn’t even 30 yet, is the rare thriller to not only contain intelligent, profound subtext, but to deliver it without hitting you over the skull. And the point Shults makes throughout — clearly, consistently, and smartly — is that every bit of human interaction involves risk. Every selfless gesture, every empathetic action, every attempt to grow closer to someone else — it means putting yourself at risk. Those who are risk-averse will tend to be safer, yes, but will also be less sociable, less sympathetic, and most likely lonelier. It’s a harsh truth, but a potent one, and you would’t expect a rich thesis like that to be found in a 6-handed, 90-minute body-horror suspense movie with a budget that couldn’t even cover Vin Diesel’s trailer.
Every time Joel Edgerton’s protagonist Paul suggests a violent or heartless action, he says it’s because “we shouldn’t be taking any risks.” The unknown illness driving the narrative (so undiagnosed and peculiar that people have to wear gas masks and gloves every time they’re outside just in case it’s airborne or easily contagious) presents several opportunities for Paul to justify his risk-aversion, but his humanity keeps trying to crawl through the cracks, like a disease penetrating the skin. Christopher Abbott is every bit his equal, a younger alpha-dad with similar motives. I didn’t think Abbott was going to be nearly as good as he was in JAMES WHITE, but then comes the scene where he tastes a nice glass of whisky and takes exactly the right amount of time after swallowing to go, “Oh, fuck. That’s smooth.” He’s sensational, and so is Riley Keough in two brief but memorable sequences.
Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis, however, is the real beating heart of the story, and Shults understands so much about what makes a 17 year-old tick: the quick crushes you get as a horny teen, the devotion to a family pet, and the curiosity that comes with optimism and naiveté. Travis is hardly the person we expect to prove Paul wrong after the latter says “you can’t trust anyone but family,” yet every decision he makes is believable and interesting. It’s hard to know when you look in the mirror whether you’re sick or not.
Shults directs and edits this film with a lot of guts and rhythm. Its suspense scenes are fist-clenching, and the frames are filled with claw-like angles, rough edges, sharp perspectives, and confined space. I haven’t yet seen KRISHA, but for a second feature, this is remarkable.