It Comes at Night – a vague and ominous title befitting a movie that itself is vague and ominous. The title is great, if only it fit this movie, it would be even better. Set in a world reeling from a deadly pandemic, this movie’s danger isn’t the exclusive domain of the dark, so the title foreshadows the confusion this movie creates. Vivid imagery and textures don’t make up for this film’s shortcomings. The result is an exploration that is too shallow to be thought provoking, and too familiar to offer meaningful insight. This movie’s identity crisis undermines its foundation, carrying implications for the film as a whole.
Despite an earnest performance from star Joel Edgerton as a man dedicated to protecting his family, this movie is a confusing assortment of false starts and unresolved loose ends, punctuated with well-worn horror/thriller conventions. The requisite jump scares deliver spikes of intensity amid unrelenting threats from both people and plague. With little relief from this film’s grim scenario, the tone is bleak. Viewers get to know that not everything is as it seems, but definitive answers remain elusive. With so much uncertainty, it’s nearly impossible to avoid second-guessing character decisions. I find myself playing pop psychologist whenever movies put forth characters whose raison d’être is unclear.
Awkward genre blending makes it hard to connect to the story, as the plot relies heavily on subtle implication, rather than detailed exposition. The result is a squishy identity that employs horror, thriller, and mystery conventions in competition with one another. This genre difficulty is the hardest part to understand. Horror has a long history of hybridizing genres to great effect, such that the clunky mix in this film is all the more disappointing. With so much in this movie left unstated, viewers are left to fill in the many blanks for themselves.
Characters development to any extent here is almost entirely absent. All we really know is that nobody wants to die. This thin motivation makes the film emotionally hollow. It’s not enough to establish that characters don’t want to die. The more satisfying depiction is showing why characters want to live, the emotional underpinnings that mark the difference between truly living and simply existing. As with so much in this movie, haziness prevents meaningful connection between audience and characters. A post-apocalyptic world is ground that’s too well covered by other movies and TV shows to be a compelling exploration in and of itself. Ask fans of The Walking Dead, and they’ll tell you the show isn’t about zombies, it’s about people.
Gripes about frustrating ambiguity notwithstanding, this movie’s greatest sin might be predictability. Horror, much like comedy, only works when surprising audiences. A punch line you can see coming isn’t funny; danger you can see coming isn’t scary. This isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just undercooked. Without characters to care about or a compelling and explicit thesis, It Comes at Night fails to deliver on the potential it sets up with some effective cinematography. This movie’s visual language does a nice job of creating a world where deeper questions could be explored. Unfortunately, this movie leaves those questions unasked and doesn’t really answer the questions it asks.