The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It Comes at Night

Trey Edward Shults. Make sure you remember that name. Burn it into your brain. Don't forget it. His debut, the superb indie drama Krisha, was one of 2016's best movies. His follow-up, It Comes at Night, solidifies what a major talent he is. It's thrilling to see a filmmaker display such confidence and assuredness with only two films under his belt. Imagine where he'll be four or five pictures down the road.

The story here implies there has been some kind of viral outbreak that has left very few survivors. One of them is Paul (Joel Edgerton), who lives in a boarded up house in the woods with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). Paul has some simple rules. Keep the door locked. Don't go outside alone. Trust no one you encounter. When a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks in looking for water and supplies, Sarah encourages him to take pity. They invite Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their little boy to stay in the home. At first, things go okay, but then Paul starts to notice some slight cracks in Will's story. He doesn't know if his houseguest is hiding something or whether his own paranoia is simply getting the better of him.

It Comes at Night is a horror movie – not one full of jump scares and overt terror (as the misleading advertising suggests), but one of mood and atmosphere. The first scene finds Paul burning the corpse of his father-in-law, who somehow got sick with the virus. The threat of illness returns when the new guests arrive. Paul tries to be a compassionate person, while also recognizing that he, Sarah, and Travis have survived because of his excessive caution. More than anything, the primary threat in the story is the potential danger of self-preservation. In the final ten minutes, that idea comes to a head, as two different characters decide they have to self-preserve at all costs. What happens leaves you reeling.

Shults does a brilliant job of making the house, with its single red door, a claustrophobic setting. There is an ominous feel to the place, with the narrow hallways and lack of natural light. In some respects, the structure represents Paul's frame of mind: locked up, impenetrable, dark. Tension is built from the idea that everyone is inside the home, possibly with an illness, and definitely with a certain amount of festering distrust. From moment to moment, you aren't certain how the characters will interact with one another in this cramped space. It's magnificently unnerving.

As with Krisha, Shults plays with the aspect ratio for effect. Travis has nightmares during which the widescreen image narrows slightly. During the climax, as horrors come closer to reality, the image shrinks even more, literally making the frame tighten in on the characters as the situation itself grows tighter. It's a subtle effect – one that many viewers may not even consciously register – that creates a real psychological impact.

Excellent performances add to the overall effect. Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott generate palpable tension between Paul and Will. Their first scene together takes place over a very long shot where the camera moves around and between them, allowing us to scrutinize their faces as the men size each other up. As things unfold, we understand why both of them make the decisions that they do, even when those decisions are morally questionable. Riley Keough and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. have some interesting scenes together, too. There is an implication that the teenage Travis, who of course has no contact with girls, is sexually attracted to Kim. The only place where the film stumbles is in failing to really follow through on this thread. Still, it provides a couple moments that are tense in a different way.

It Comes at Night takes great care to generate ambiance. It's paced in a deliberate manner that allows you to pay attention to little details, analyze what's happening under the surface, and register the implications of every character's thought and action. In a day and age when so many horror movies think they have to bombard the audience with “stuff” at every second, there's something refreshing about one with some patience.

If you can get into that vibe, It Comes at Night is a haunting tale about good people on the verge of having their moral compasses malfunction.

( 1/2 out of four)

It Comes at Night is rated R for violence, disturbing images, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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