To those of you avoiding trailers in fear of spoilers I give my sincere congratulations because you will probably among few in mainstream audiences to not leave this film feeling underwhelmed.
As the lights dimmed around me and I listened to the chatter during the trailers, I worried I may have been with the wrong crowd for the film. I listened to them hope for zombies, monsters, blood, and boobies. When the lights went up I knew it, as this just isn’t for everyone. That isn’t to say it’s a bad movie, but go in knowing that it is not as it was advertised.
Spoilers follow from this point on. I tried to think of a way to really discuss this film and what it is without resorting to just a straight-up spoiler review, but there was not much of a way I could find to do that. Sure, the film has a really tense score but it doesn’t stand out, it’s background. It’s well-shot with gorgeous shadow work, almost noir-like in quality, but you got all that in the trailer (and every poster). The plot, the performances, those are the highlights of the film and it would be almost impossible to discuss Trey Edward Shults’s latest film without going into detail so…here we go.
Let’s rip this band-aid off now – there are no zombies. There’s no creature or beastie, no horrendously warped ghost brought back by a curse, and no mummy vying for a place in the realm of cinematic universes. No, what comes at night is something far more relatable and potentially more frightening.
As a brutal virus ravages major cities, and seemingly most of the world, we are invited to join a small family of three that are living in the woods to ride this situation out. Paul (Joel Edgerton), the patriarchal father, is leading this little fortress through the apocalypse. We open on a scene to see an old man dying. It’s brutal, with his arms covered in sores and his breathing ragged and painful. It’s wet, sticky, and shuddering in his throat. This is Bud (David Pendleton), the father of Paul’s wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and he is our introduction to what they’re up against. As he is dying, Paul recruits his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to help him take care of matters. Bud is taken to the woods, put down like a rabid dog, and burned in a grave before being buried. The survival methods are brutal, but efficient.
Queue the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbott), followed closely by his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their very young son Andrew.
From here the plot becomes a story about paranoia, learning to trust, and the brutal fallout surrounding lacks of trust and the desire for companionship during the end of humanity. And make no mistake, this film is about the anxiety surrounding a lack of humanity. In fact that’s the meaning behind the title. It’s what is coming at night – the fear.
Shults shows us this through Travis, the audience stand-in character and our man POV as voyeurs in this little drama. We have no idea where the virus came from or what exactly it is, just like the characters, and Travis’s fear manifests in evening visions. His crush on Kim comes out in a vision of her straddling before vomiting blood in his mouth. His fear of his dying grandfather manifests in a vision of the old man brutally morphing into a beast.
Anxiety is what this is really about, the discomfort with other human beings. Our small families, with their sons and guns, don’t know how to really interact without suspecting one another. They give it the best of tries though.
Travis seems to be sick from the beginning and this is where the fear manifests. His visions are wholly based around infection and visualizing it. Bud died after two days of infection, but he was old. Travis is young and healthy, and he spends a lot of time with Bud’s dog Stanley (my theory as to how he gets infected). The film is watching it manifest and as we realize this we know that everyone is already screwed. The film is a drive to death and nothing more, but that might be its greatest strength: simplicity in concept is key for a film like this, one that is a risky move in just how ambiguous it can feel.
I’m up and down on this one. I did not get what I expected, but I got something else that I wound up enjoying. I’m reminded a bit of The Witch, another family drama with a horror vibe from a couple of years back. Like that film, this one comes more from letting its characters interact than it does on frightening imagery and this is where it succeeds for me. I was up and down the whole time on whether or not I would wind up happy with this but the ending really cemented it. I have rarely been more uncomfortable, more horrified, and more disturbed than I was at the climax of this film. My breath caught in my throat and I had a mild panic, it was intense.
At the end of the day this won’t be for most people. It was advertised as a freaky horror movie, the marketing pretending that it was holding something back. Instead it hid the trick – that there was no ghoulie or ghostie or zombie. The creatures were in the house the whole time and I have to say…I was pleased with that.