“Are you sick?”
Distill any post-apocalyptic, sickness-infested world inhabited by survivors to its core and you receive an unfiltered glimpse at humanity’s desperation. Strip away the artifice and redundant plotlines, tear down labels in the vein of hero or leader or savior, and make sure “hope” becomes an archaic concept lost to distant memory even if it hasn’t been that long since everything imploded without warning. These arduously unforgiving circumstances box “life” in the present so that the past seems like a dream and the future a luxurious fantasy nobody will ever experience. To truly understand what it means to embody paranoia and shed morality in order to steel oneself to the very real and imperative necessity of murder means anything other than bleak nightmare ultimately falls creatively and emotionally short.
This is why we grow tired of a series like “The Walking Dead” going on and on with too clear delineations between good and evil by letting the corruption of power and gift of living transform one man into legend and another monster. It’s why so many zombie tales in general falter at their conclusions by leaving the door open for a cure. Here’s the thing: hope isn’t what keeps you alive. If anything it’s what gets you killed because it allows you to grow complacent and reliant on unknown parties. You cannot afford to think in terms of civilization or community because every healthy interaction is tempered by five ending with death. As such, authentic suspense isn’t derived from the dynamic between humanity and the other.
It instead comes from trust’s slippery slope between survivors on the inside, bred from the quiet deceptions and scheming that never quit. It comes from consequences devoid of intent because we cannot know what’s real and what’s not when actions dictate a dissolution of the line separating the two. Honesty becomes a liability as you find yourself saying whatever you need to say with unwavering conviction. Your very existence relies upon a con and Trey Edward Shults‘ characters within It Comes at Night understand this. They know the person opposite them will lie through his/her teeth to earn their next breath because they would do the exact same thing. So you talk about what you can offer, not what you need. You become indispensable despite knowing nobody is.
Give credit to A24 for finding voices willing to reach the depths of our capacity for evil tinged with pure intention. On its surface Shults’ sophomore effort (after Krisha, a similar character study revealing the lengths we’ll go to fool ourselves into believing our worth exceeds all others) is like a hybrid of the studio’s Into the Forest and The Witch. There’s the desperation in the face of unexplained phenomena, the insulated locales populated by minimal residents in order to get to the heart of our failings as a species, and the devastating reality that freedom does not exist within the parameters of their respective situations. These films set a trap and watch as each player transforms into that which they fear—no disease besides human nature necessary.
And he throws us into the fire with frame one. Bud (David Pendleton) is sick (dying or changing, the reality of this world’s horror is never concretely explained), quarantined in the tiny room separating the rest of Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah’s (Carmen Ejogo) home from the outside. She’s mourning him: her father. Seventeen-year old Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) feigns stoicism to help his own do the impossible (a bullet in the head before a burning grave), the impact of seeing someone he loves die not in the least dismissed. They are surviving, cutting out the death that has unfortunately entered their boarded-off bunker. They wear gas masks and gloves, keep to a regimented routine, and do not exit their locked red door after dark except for emergency.
Things change, however, when a stranger (Christopher Abbott‘s Will) wanders onto their property. If the systematic disposal of Travis’ grandfather wasn’t enough to expose the despair ravaging their lives, Paul’s handling of this trespasser will. There must be a vetting process to discern whether Will is sick and whether he can be trusted. Is he alone? Does he have weapons? What’s he searching for? To take an eye off him is to put everyone in danger because he only has to take one hostage for the others to supply him whatever he demands. This is life now. All anyone has is him/herself and the family he/she would die to protect. Compassion isn’t a commodity anyone can afford, but sometimes the smart move is keeping a potential enemy close.
Shults pulls no punches in revealing the cold, calculated black and white mentality of his creation. We spend half the movie understanding his characters’ strength: their ability to make the hard call and the intelligence to play the correct angles at all times. An alliance might be created, but it is never as solid as one born from blood. As Paul tells his son with full severity, any pact made with an outsider is done so without trust. Your guard can never come down. You will constantly attempt to poke holes in the others’ stories, and you will wait a lifetime before ever letting them inhabit equal stature. Will can bring wife (Riley Keough‘s Kim) and son (Griffin Robert Faulkner‘s Andrew), but he will never hold a key.
The second half of the film therefore shows the reality of Shults’ prison. His characters are prisoners held in check by the potential of what looms outside—whether invisible toxin/virus or physical construct of evil. But they’re also prisoners of one another and themselves. Travis is haunted by nightmares that cause us to wonder about his sanity, health, and actions. Will and Paul entrap their families, subtly separating them from the other with constant judgment and skepticism. The walls start to close in as a result, every sequence projecting empathy and equality tempered by a show of individual control. And when something happens to threaten one if not all, good will evaporates. The dog-eat-dog mentality returns and we see just how far they’ll go to protect their own.
It leads towards a nail-bitingly tense finale of fear, guilt, and contrition. Shults is right to never let anger or rage guide his characters. People might die, but they do so with purpose rather than as a result of blind, petty quarrel. If hate exists, it’s within. Paul hates himself for what he’s turned into. Will hates himself because of what he’s willing to do. And Travis hates the fact that his youthful innocence has become a liability for himself and those around him. As soon as you let hope in you seal your fate. As soon as forget protocol because you forget who “matters” most, you risk letting those that haven’t clean up the mess you didn’t know you made. Death is coming. The question is when.
So if you have a desire to see the “It” of the title and experience violent gore: stay home. You’ll be disappointed. The “It” is abstract, an evil existing within us all. The darkness and uncertainty of night only amplifies its call, our vulnerability while asleep never to be underestimated. It permeates our dreams, heightens senses, and dissolves patience and optimism. Things do go bump in the night and sometimes they are you and I. To wait for light and clarity is to quiet voices that will not cease. To wait for morning is to know what you’ve done devoid of filter. “It” comes at night because that’s when instinct reigns. Success is misleading, though, because surviving isn’t actually living. Surviving merely prolongs your own inevitable demise.
 Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott, Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Carmen Ejogo, and Griffin Robert Faulkner. Photo by Eric McNatt, courtesy of A24
 David Pendleton. Photo by Eric McNatt, courtesy of A24
 Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough. Photo by Eric McNatt, courtesy of A24