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Fright unseen – ‘It Comes at Night’

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Horror film mines scares from ambiguity

There are a lot of different ways that a film can try to scare you. Jump scares can work. Over-the-top gore, too. Monsters and ghosts and zombies – it can all do the necessary horror heavy lifting.

But there’s also plenty of room for more cerebral scares, the movies that mine moments of terror from the subtle and the quiet. Movies that expect the viewers to fill in some of the blanks with their imaginations.

“It Comes at Night” falls very much into that latter category, a stripped-down slow burn of a film that reinforces the simple truth that – when done right – the never-seen can have a great an impact as anything that actually appears on the screen.

Something has happened. A mysterious, unexplained illness has laid waste to the population and society has seemingly broken down. Survivors have fled the urban areas for wilder (and presumed safer) environs in order to hide from the perceived chaos.

Paul (Joel Edgerton, “Loving”) lives with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo, “Alien: Covenant”) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr., “The Birth of a Nation”) in a fortified house in the woods. They exist in a world of isolation, establishing an uneasy domesticity in the face of a still-unknown crisis.

But when they catch a man trying to break into their house, they quickly understand that their isolation is now irrevocably compromised. The intruder – named Will (Christopher Abbott, “Katie Says Goodbye”) – turns out to have thought the place abandoned and was hunting for supplies to support his family.

Paul decides to invite Will, Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough, “American Honey”) and their young son (Griffin Robert Faulkner in his feature debut) to live in their space, the idea being to establish some kind of safety in numbers. But in a world defined by survival, trust comes hard and tensions run high.

As the horrors outside seem to close in, trust crumbles and paranoia escalates; everyone involved soon discovers just how far they’re willing to go in order to protect themselves and the one they love.

That’s a vague synopsis, but its vagueness is intentional - the less you know about this movie going in, the better off you will be. There’s a claustrophobic ambiguity to the film; you’re closed in and confined, but all the while surrounded by a world rendered horrifying by omission. None of these people know what’s out there, so they become obsessive about controlling their direct surroundings.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults has just one other feature to his credit – the critically-beloved “Krisha” – but his skills belie his youth. He manipulates the narrative masterfully, weaving together the real, the imagined and the in-between into something darkly compelling. It takes a confident, courageous filmmaker to fully embrace the inclusion of ambiguous questions, one that trusts the audience enough to leave some blanks unfilled. It’s a daring move – when it misfires, the result can be incoherent and unwatchable. But Shults is right on target.

He’s helped by his cast, led by the low-key fantastic Joel Edgerton. There’s a sincerity to his work that makes him particularly engaging in these “regular guy pushed too far” sorts of roles. Everything about him feels genuine – this role is no exception. It’s a quiet performance – they’re all quiet, really – which makes the high-volume spots particularly impactful. Harrison is a bundle of nervous energy, carrying a subconscious tension into every scene that unfailingly ratchets up the stakes. Everyone else is quite good as well, with Ejogo exuding a powerful sadness and strong performances from Abbott and Keogh, but ultimately, the film belongs to Edgerton and – to a lesser extent – Harrison.

“It Comes at Night” is distributed by A24 as that company continues to corner the market on high-minded (and often low-budget) genre fare. The folks that gave you critical darlings like “Ex Machina” and “The Witch” (not to mention other award-winning films like “Room” and “Moonlight”) don’t screw around when it comes to quality – this film is just the latest example of their exceptional films.

It’s relatively easy for a film to startle, but vastly more difficult to truly scare. Shults has created something truly scary. This movie is subtle and suffocating, a paranoid thriller wrapped in an unclear end of the world. “It Comes at Night” will keep you up at night.

[5 out of 5]

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