A red door in a house in the middle of nowhere, just a few square feet of timber and a coat of red paint, is all that stands between society and total chaos. But what if that barrier is an illusion? What if the door is open, and the trust and safety it represents is already broken?
It Comes at Night imagines a world where trust and optimism are the only bulwarks holding back a crushing darkness. The door, always closed and locked, especially at night, is a symbol for those concepts. But even the people who huddle behind it aren’t able to grasp the relationship. They think the door is the important object, and that’s the sort of thinking that could get them killed.
The house is nestled in the sort of forested, mountainous countryside that typically represents a pleasant escape from modern life. The Poconos, maybe, or the Adirondacks. The family within, made up of a former teacher, his wife, son, and the woman’s father, have avoided infection by a virulent plague that has decimated the country.
Well, not all of them have avoided the illness. The film opens with the eldest family member drawing his last breath thanks to the disease. A bullet to his head is supposedly mercy, but it is really an admission that the remaining family is that much closer to losing the battle for survival.
The remaining trio, man, woman and child, wear masks to protect themselves from the uncertain air. Constantly on high alert against whatever might be outside, suspicion is their primary mode. Trust is in short supply.
The plague has taken everything. People are dead, food is gone, culture is an afterthought. One of the few remnants of civilization is an oil painting that dominates the hallway leading to that red door. It hangs opposite a wall of family photos. As writer/director Trey Edward Shults leads us on a slow crawl through that hallway, the image, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Triumph of Death," hangs over the family like a dark cloud.
The painting is an agonized image of mankind tormented by death, with skeletons harrowing all elements of society, from rich to poor, and the remaining masses being herded into what looks like some kind of spiked trap. In a dark house that desperately needs some vision of hope, this still holds sway. Maybe it’s a reminder of what’s outside, or of how bad things can still get.
So this is a nightmare America, where people remember a better past but are nearly hopeless to recreate it. If movies like Mad Max were post-apocalyptic visions for a time when resources like oil seemed likely to precipitate massive world conflict, It Comes at Night is all the animosity of modern America pushed to a brutal endpoint.
Then another family comes into the picture, as a man tries to break through that red door from the outside. He doesn’t know about the family inside, and breaking that seal nearly ends his life. Soon, however, the intruder and his wife and child forge an uneasy alliance with the original residents.
Any comfort they develop together is undermined by the constant fear, not only of what’s outside, but of what could be inside. Something lurking beyond a door, or just outside the window, is a core image in horror, because it’s one of the central experiences we all share. As children, even as adults, we’re quick to assume that noises in the dark signal encroaching danger. The idea that the danger might already be inside is even more potent.
The red door allows these six people to hold onto the delusion that their greatest danger is beyond the walls of the home. But shadows of lies are between them from the beginning, and a persistent sense of suspicion maintains a gulf between the families. The masks are worn outside, but everyone is on guard inside, too, even behind the “safety” of the door.
If there’s a fault in It Comes at Night — which is directed with chilling control and acted with superb emotional fidelity — it’s that the effective filmmaking leaves little room for expression of hope. This movie doesn’t blink as it demonstrates that mistrust is the root of this particular social malaise — the virus and violence are symptoms of the real disease. If anyone here could just stand down, or relax their defensive posture, things might work out.
Then again, at the point where this film opens, it may be too late. No barrier can defend against fear and suspicion. Those enemies are ghosts. They're like the skeletal tormenters in "The Triumph of Death," herding these people into a box, where they'll scream and bang on the walls until they expire.