Review: 'It Comes At Night' Starring Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, & Riley Keough

Just as The Walking Dead isn't a show about zombies, it's about people surviving a zombie apocalypse, Trey Edward Shults's It Comes at Night is a post-apocalyptic thriller unconcerned with the actual apocalypse. The terror it dredges up is internalized by a handful of survivors, in a "cabin in the woods" no less, in a scenario that reeks of "been there, done that". But it's the depiction of the loneliness and resignation in the surviving few that resounds the loudest, even when Shults's now-trademark minimalism becomes a hurdle he can't overcome.

The sophomore effort by Shults after his impressive if slightly overrated Krisha is an exercise in paranoia and debilitating emotional trauma. It takes place after the Earth has been ravaged by some kind of biological attack, and survivors are few. The film begins with a man dying; an older man, his eyes black, his face covered in plague, he's spitting up blood. He's surrounded by who we believe are his family, all in containment suits and gas masks. They are saying goodbyes, heartfelt ones. Moments later the older man is shot, his body burned to avoid the spread of whatever disease he had. He was Travis' (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) grandfather, and father to Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), leaving her husband Paul (Joel Edgerton) as the family patriarch and main protector. And protect them he will.

Their home is a nightmare in itself. Cramped, lit by the barest of firelight, bare walls with nary a hint of a happy past, and a locked red door that looks like the entrance to Hell. The horrors of the outside intimated by an ominous painting of terrible disarray and murder, followed by Travis' regular nightmares of impending doom. Paul has enforced strict rules to keep everyone to a daily regiment, but that gets disrupted when an intruder, Will (Christopher Abbott), breaks into the boarded up home. He thought it was vacant, and came seeking food for his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), who are miles away. The initial meeting goes about as well as expected, ending with Will beaten and tied to a tree. One can never be too safe, and given the condition of the world at large it seems like a reasonable reaction.

There's enough desperation on both sides that they come to an accord. Will and his family move in, bringing their goats and chickens, while Paul offers the safety of their home and access to water. We know this arrangement is doomed from the start, but Shults leaves so much vague that we're left to wonder how it will implode. What form will the titular "It" take and how will it come to further wreck people already devoid of hope?  That mystery creates an oppressive psychosis where every innocent encounter could blow up like a powder keg. Travis, who has never and may never have a normal relationship with a female, sneaks into the attic to listen in on Kim and Will's bedroom conversations. And Paul, a former schoolteacher-turned-household guardian, grows more weary as Will's story fails to add up. Something has to give, but Shults leaves his characters too thinly-drawn beyond their immediate concerns. Ejogo in particular has little to offer as Sarah, other than to stand beside Edgerton's stoic but grave Paul. As the least recognizable star in the cast Harrison actually proves to be the one breakout, as Travis tries to reconcile what his teenage years should be and what they actually are. And I've been fond of Abbott's work; the guy shows more pain behind his eyes than any young actor should be capable. Keough, who has been on a tear of strong performances lately (like in the recent American Honey), is in much the same boat as Ejogo, struggling to give her character definition in a strongly masculine screenplay.

The claustrophobia that Schults and his cast are able to project is palpable, ratcheting up to thrilling seat-of-your-pants conclusion that is surprising even though we knew it was inevitable. There's a missed opportunity for It Comes at Night to be truly great, and to do something different with the genre, but the journey is too empty to leave a satisfying impression.

Rating: 3 out of 5