The horror of It Comes At Night is that even the murder of a child can affect nothing and go without consequence, a truth the universe validates with indifference. The movie opens, however, with the murder of an old man, one who is suffering, and clearly dying, from a disease that a lesser movie would turn into its hook, and whose novelty it would diminish by insisting on causes, symptoms, rules, a cure, blunting the thrust of the film with tropes and exposition. But director Trey Edward Shults has no time for that, so the old man is murdered, presumably to save him from whatever this apocalyptic plague would have done. This could be called euthanasia; “mercy killing”; a courtesy; something done for his own good, born of a moral decision. Paul (Joel Edgerton) might call it pragmatism, but the movie doesn’t shy from terrible truths: it’s murder, as the nonconsensual ending of another’s life always is, and the smoke of his burning corpse, dumped down a ditch and hastily drenched in gasoline, carries us into the movie proper.
It Comes At Night follows Paul, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a small family who have established a routine of survival in a post-apocalyptic world turned on its heads by a plague. They keep indoors as often as possible and purport never to venture out at night, although that self-imposed rule isn’t followed for a second of the film’s 91 minutes. In the middle of the night following the cremation of Sarah’s father (David Pendleton), a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break into their home, but is subdued by Paul and his rifle. He’s lashed to a tree for two nights but insists to Paul that he has a wife and child, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), that need his help. Paul’s house seemed abandoned, with its boarded windows, so he thought it would be safe to search for supplies. Will wins Paul’s trust, and upon concluding that both families have a better chance of surviving together, they unite under Paul’s roof. Things begin to go awry shortly thereafter, and then take an even sharper turn toward the worst.