In uncertain times, in an uncertain world, the one institution people can always rely on is family—unless they’re in a Trey Edward Shults movie.
In just two movies released in as many years, first with his 2016 debut, Krisha, and now with his freshly released follow-up, It Comes at Night, Shults has solidified his reputation as a filmmaker obsessed with family as a locus for tension. His debut, the former, is a family drama flick with dread lingering at its edges, like a Robert Altman film shot through a horror lens. The latter is a full-blown horror picture with family smack dab at its center, the story of two tribes struggling to survive in an America laid to ruin by the spread of a lethal, vaguely drawn pandemic. On screen they couldn’t be more different, one a personal, genre-bending effort Shults made with friends and family, the other a firmly genre-oriented movie made with a cast of known actors and in a familiar mode. In actuality, they’re as much kin as their characters are to each other, their tallied resentments, grudges and traumas notwithstanding.
For Shults, family isn’t about safety—family is the illusion of safety. In Krisha, the film’s namesake (played by Krisha Fairchild) walks into Thanksgiving celebrations after years of separation from her sister, Robyn (Robyn Fairchild), her brother-in-law, Doyle (Bill Wise), her son, Trey (played by Shults), and her entire extended family. The distance between Krisha and her clan is the consequence of her history of addiction—the film’s lurking bogeyman—which rears its ugly head as the time for turkey carving draws nearer. Krisha needn’t be haunted by real demons when the combustible combination of family and addiction has the same effect: Simply being in the room with relatives is enough to spark a slow-burning flame that leads her, and the whole get-together, to cinders (save for Doyle, who cackles with smug self-satisfaction).
In contrast to Krisha, It Comes at Night presents family as a sacrosanct construct for the express purpose of showing how easily that construct is dismantled despite anyone’s best attempts at keeping it together. The film plays out the growing friction between two families living together in dire circumstances as inevitable tragedy. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live on their own in a disheveled farmhouse, where living is literally all they do: They maintain their home and hunt for supplies, taking breaks only to eat, hydrate and maybe, if occasion allows, play card games. When happened upon by outsiders—Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough) and their son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner)—Paul reacts defensively, only letting the newcomers into his family’s home after confirming their health and their intentions. The families gel at first, until they don’t, and all is brought to a head in a chilling barrage of gunfire.
In It Comes at Night, “family” is to be preserved, but families are never to be trusted. The paranoia that’s so intrinsic to Krisha’s protagonist is instead atmospheric in It Comes at Night, a veritable cloud of suspicion that sends Paul and Will into alpha male tailspins and brings about the destruction of all they love. The driving heart of both films is intimacy: It’s as key to Krisha’s exploration of addiction as a source of inner torment, as it is to It Comes at Night’s deconstruction of the idea of family. They’re made with the same style—intimacy verging on claustrophobia—but Krisha’s intimacy is focused inward, while It Comes at Night’s is outward.
Despite variations in scope and tone, Shults broadcasts the same underlying message in both: Be wary of family. As much as Americans, as a general rule, like to think of themselves as family-oriented, "family," whether your own or someone else’s, isn’t safe. It’s something suspect. You can only invest yourself so much in family before the needs of the many clash with the needs of the few. Think of Krisha’s increasing instability as her family responds to her pledges of sobriety with skepticism, as Trey refuses to forgive her trespasses as a parent, as her own elderly mother fails to remember who she is on Thanksgiving morning. Then think of how fast relations between Paul’s family and Will’s family crumble as soon as the red door, the only barrier protecting both families from the outside world, is found left open in the night. Families must either turn on themselves, or they’ll turn on each other.
In too many ways, that’s apropos of the era we’re living through right now. Grant that Shults wrote It Comes at Night back in 2014 after completing filming on Krisha. We’re talking about a pair of movies made long before politics forced domestic American life into its current hostile environment. But that signals an unflattering truth: That as of last November, we’d been living in that environment for years. The tribalism and partisanship that play such a profound role in shaping modern American identities have played that role since the 2000s (and if we’re being honest, since the 1990s, since the 1980s, since the 1950s). You could qualify Shults and his films as prescient, but a better word might be “astute” or “observant.” (The harshest descriptor of all: “Honest.”)
At face value, Krisha and It Comes at Night are about the ramifications of letting strangers, and the estranged, cross the threshold into your home: Strangers can bring danger of all stripes upon your family, whereas the estranged can wound you by their mere presences, a reminder of emotional scars they’ve left imprinted on you (and vice versa; with family, emotional scarring tends to be a two-way street). They might not carry disease or wish you harm, but they carry baggage, and baggage causes harm enough. Both films are uniquely positioned to reflect the overtones of America’s national temperament by dint of their focus on the American family.
Remember the deluge of editorials and thinkpieces that flooded the Internet after the election, advising readers on how to deal with politics at the dinner table during (coincidence of coincidences) Thanksgiving? They mostly tell a joke and land on a punchline, but the chafing and agitation they make light of was, and still is, authentic. It’s one thing knowing that many of your countrymen voted for the other candidate. It’s another knowing that your aunt, your uncle, your cousins, your grandparents voted that way, that whatever your beliefs, your closest relations believe the diametric opposite.
Such is the distrust of It Comes at Night, and of Krisha, films whose characters can’t ever be sure what their families think of them, whether their families are defined on legal terms, via marriage, or by necessity, via proximity. Krisha’s family is traditional, a conglomerate of people linked by holy matrimony and by blood. Paul’s family, at peak capacity, is a patchwork comprised of his spouse and their kid, as well as Will, and Kim, and Andrew. (In It Comes at Night, family is what you make it.) But for all their differences, the families of Krisha and It Comes at Night are both vulnerable to the same maladies: doubt, cynicism and that aforementioned dirty word, "uncertainty," each a part of the anchor weighing America down in 2017.
Family and horror go hand in hand, of course—see We Are Still Here, The Babadook and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for starters. But Shults’s work frames family as ground zero for cataclysms of the body and the soul, the point of origin for any individual’s downfall. We estrange aberrant members of our own clans (Krisha) when they deviate from the norm, and we presume members of other clans to be an immediate threat to our own (It Comes at Night). These prejudices are self-fulfilling prophecies, the tools with which we sow the seeds of our inevitable collapse. There’s little comfort to wring out of that, but if you’re looking for comfort from Shults, keep looking.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.