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From the very start, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night presents itself as an in-between of reality and fantasy. There is no beauty to this fantasy; only death and the haze of illness seeping into every ounce of the humans involved in this tense drama. The horror of It Comes at Night is not so much the illness at its core, but the way these specific humans react to this plague and to those around them they view as threats.

Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), our primary point of entry and a young man living with his parents (Carmen Ejogo and Joel Edgerton) in the woods, is just as clueless as the audience about the disease that afflicts the people of this world, and Shults offers no explanations. At the onset of the film, Travis’ diseased grandfather is mercifully shot, disposed of, and burnt in order to contain any trace of the mysterious illness. Much to the annoyance of many an audience member, the mystery behind this illness is not explained. Shults instead focuses on the details of existing within a plagued world.

Routine becomes second nature; lock doors, ration food and water, wear your mask and gloves, wash your hands, don’t go anywhere alone. When this family finds their routine broken and then readjusted due to the presence of new individuals (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner), tensions begin to rise and fall as we see how Travis reacts to new stimuli. The script is at its best when it promises to explore Travis’ naivety at interacting with those outside of his family, though some of those strands are dropped for the sake of ambiguous storytelling. This results in an underuse of the film’s two actresses, especially as the film only chooses to drift away from Travis’ POV to focus on Edgerton’s father figure in some less-than-necessary expository sequences meant to increase tension and action.

It’s in Travis that Shults hits his creative peaks, showing less interest in advancing the plot and instead choosing to toy with the visuals of paranoia. Plagued with nightmares–that may or may not be a result of illness–Travis is prone to sliding from uncomfortable lucidity to gorgeously executed nightmares: long, deliberately paced shots through halls toward the red door that offers safety and peril, with shots filtered through the hazy lens of insecurity. Seemingly naturalistic lighting that only reveals what the filmmaker wants one to see and shifting aspect ratios consistently betray reality to fantasy. Brian McOmber’s chilling score fills the air, disrupting the occasionally peaceful silence, and Harrison Jr’s perpetually unsettled performance, always seemingly on edge, even when having a conversation about bread pudding and Rice Krispies.

It Comes at Night may seem to many to be too thin of a plot for a feature, but its minimalist approach to a contained narrative of a plagued world works well. There’s room for more exploration of the characters at its core, but its short length feels akin to a haunting short story.  In this tale, we substitute atmospheric description in literature for formal beauty (by way of impeccable cinematography and editing) in order to enhance every ounce of mystery, loss, and fear in its cold, gripping bones.

Directed by Trey Edward Shults; written by Trey Edward Shults; starring Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kevin Harrison Jr., Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, and Griffin Robert Faulkner; 97 minutes.

It Comes at Night is now playing in theaters everywhere.