Not with a bang, but a whimper—that’s the way of the soft apocalypse. Things have fallen apart. The center didn’t hold. And now, through no one’s fault in particular, the comforts and security of an organized society are in the process of evaporating. The post-apocalyptic genre operates like a Western in reverse: Rather than civilization coming up against wildness, it depicts wildness descending on civilization. But the rules work the same—the only law is what you can carve out by force or cunning or confederation. And it’ll never be easy.
It Comes at Night tells the story of Paul (Joel Edgerton), who lives in a secluded woodland house with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The world is sick—probably dying. An unnamed plague, fatal and incurable, has fragmented what we can see of society. Food, gas, and ammunition are in short supply, and bands of violent men prowl the roads. Every foray into the outside world carries the threat of contamination. Paul and his family must defend themselves from these threats and ensure they have enough supplies to last... a while. It doesn’t seem like any cavalry is coming to the rescue.
Aside from the obvious similarities to Naughty Dog’s remarkable 2013 video game The Last of Us (which the film resembles both aesthetically and thematically), the more I think about It Comes at Night, the more it reminds me of a video game. In a good way! The film consistently evokes that very specific sense of risk/reward anxiety that makes survival games both punishing and fun. The audience is given a clear sense of what Paul’s family has: some guns. Some food. A secure house off the beaten path. We know their lives are pretty good, at least compared to most.
We also know it’s not going to be enough. And that tension—between immediate security and long-term survival—is an exceptional driving force.
Another force: Edgerton, who manages an astonishing performance as a parent who must make a series of difficult decisions in extreme circumstances. He’s understated when he needs to be—quietly embodying a man who was probably gentle and kind once, but those traits have worn down and splintered away. Now he’s the kind of person who knows he can kill to survive, and there’s a hardness behind his eyes that flashes in moments when he might need to again. Like the rest of the film, Paul balances between competing states of comfort and savagery.
The film stumbles when it makes a few unnecessary forays into the supernatural, via what’s implied to be an unseen and malevolent presence in the woods. Even the title refers to an “it” that isn’t reflected in the structure of the film (there are plenty of threats, and they come at all times of day). I can’t fault writer/director Trey Edward Shults for wanting to keep the audience on its toes, but an unseen bogeyman is not among the film’s strengths. At best, it feels like a distraction, and at worst, like a cheap misdirect.
That’s minor, though, compared to the memorable feats It Comes at Night manages. Especially in 2017, it’s easy to bounce off of grueling apocalyptic dramas like The Walking Dead and The Road—in those stories, like life, the sense of doom can become overbearing. It Comes at Night balances on the knife edge between hope and despair, counterweighting the dire nature of its world with genuinely moving moments of warmth. This family seems worth saving, and the destruction that hovers over them, for all its menace, never feels inevitable.