“It Comes at Night” opens on the lesioned face of a dying old man surrounded by tearful loved ones wearing gloves and gas masks. He has a fatal and highly contagious disease that has decimated the population. He’s euthanized by the end of the next scene, not to put him out of his misery so much as to protect his family from him. The man’s 17-year-old grandson watches it happen.
This is an intense psychological thriller, slow-boiling and unsettling, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, whose under-the-radar debut, “Krisha,” won near-universal acclaim in 2015. Here he presents another family in crisis, doing what they believe is right but plagued by doubts, fear, mistrust, and an actual plague. Can over-caution be as destructive as carelessness? How drastically can you alter your lifestyle to prevent harm before the alterations become worse than the thing you’re afraid of? Whether taken as an allegory for immigration, terrorism, or something broader, Shults’s cool, sure-handed sophomore effort will stick with you.
Living in a spacious, isolated house in the woods in some part of what used to be America is a small family: Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Sarah’s father was the old man at the beginning, but she and Paul are of one unsentimental mind when it comes to matters of safety. The front door to the house (painted red for ominous effect) is always closed and locked, and any stranger the family encounters is assumed contagious unless proven otherwise. Paul, a history teacher before the plague, never intended to be a rugged survivalist, but has become one through his desire to protect his family.
This natural instinct has made Paul jumpy, so cautious about his wife and son that he’s indifferent, even cruel, toward others. They meet another, slightly younger family — Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough), and their little boy Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) — with whom they can share resources, but Paul is never sure he can trust them. Travis, a sweet kid through whose eyes much of the film is seen, is charmed by the newcomers, envious of their familial intimacy. Seeing this, Paul reminds him: “You can’t trust anybody but family.”
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B+ (1 hr., 37 min.; )