Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner
Rated R for Violence, Disturbing Images and Language
"It Comes At Night" is a psychological horror film, and it has all the qualities of an A-list entry. It's drenched in atmosphere, the performances are strong, and writer/director Trey Edward Shults knows how to generate a palpable sense of dread (dissonant musical score, long takes, careful lighting, etc.). The problem is that the movie has no plot. The set-up is strong, aside from a fuzzy foundation, but it doesn't take long to realize that the story is going nowhere. Shults plays all his cards by the end of the first reel, and he struggles to keep things going before the violent and nonsensical conclusion.
A plague has ravaged the area. Whether it is local or worldwide is not made clear, but it's dangerous enough that Paul (Edgerton) has gathered up his wife Sarah (Ejogo) and son Travis (Harrison Jr.) and moved to a remote cabin in the woods. The film opens with them putting Sarah's plague-stricken father (David Pendleton) out of his misery. One night the three survivors hear a loud ruckus behind the sealed front door. It turns out that a man, believing the house to be uninhabited, has broken in to look for supplies. After exhaustingly interrogating the man, a father named Will (Abbott), he retrieves Will's wife Kim (Keough) and son Andrew (Faulkner) and invites them to live in his cabin.
As far as plot goes, that's about it. I'm not being oblique to avoid spoilers. Until the climax, there isn't a lot to spoil. It's effective on a technical level; there's a constant sense of tension and dread, and a few legitimate shocks. But not much happens in this movie. As it began, I sat back in my seat, preparing myself for something like "The Innkeepers," and despite the early promise, it doesn't happen. Shults is spinning his wheels, and the longer the film goes on, the more I realized that this movie was the emperor with no clothes.
The most immediate problem is that the film lacks a firm foundation upon which to build the plot. Like many a pandemic movie ("Carriers," "The Road," "Dawn of the Dead"), the specifics of the illness are irrelevant. The plague is a plot device and is best treated as such. But we have to have more information than this. We have to know a little about it in order to get into the mindset of the characters. We need to know what to look for and how it works. In broad strokes at least. But Shults is too oblique, too esoteric for this to work. Instead of being able to accept the plague for what it is, we spend the entire time wondering what exactly these characters are afraid of. Abstract villains, particularly in the horror genre, are fine. "Event Horizon," which I just watched again recently, is a good example. But it has to be set up well. That doesn't happen here.
The performances are strong, which helps matters. Joel Edgerton is his usual reliable self, mixing strength and vulnerability. In a welcome change, his Paul isn't another one of those emotionally retarded macho men. Paul has no qualms about doing what needs to be done or saying what needs to be said. Carmen Ejogo is wasted in an underwritten role. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a solid vessel for the audience; it is through his eyes that the story is told, and he is up to the task. The best performance is given by newcomer Christopher Abbot, whose performance as a desperate father tugs at the heart.
The film's climax is a bust. It might have been tense and shocking had it not been so contrived. It comes about not because the characters bring it about, but because forces them to act in ways that bring it about, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense. It's only allowed to happen because the characters suddenly get brain cramps and become possessed by the Spirit of Bad Horror Movie Clichés. The valiant efforts of the cast can't camouflage the fact that it's nothing short of idiotic.
Maybe another run through the computer could have smoothed out the film's rough edges. The pieces are there.