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Filmmaker Trey Edward Shults explores the dark side of the soul

Photo: Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Travis in ‘It Comes Out At Night’

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

To paraphrase the Prince song “The Future” from the “Batman” soundtrack, I’ve seen the future of my 2017 top 10 list and the new Trey Edward Shults release, “It Comes At Night,” will be there. Oh, yes it will.

His 2015 feature debut, “Krisha,” came dangerously close to bum-rushing its way into my top 10 that year for its awkwardly surreal take on how an eccentric family member can hijack a holiday gathering. Shults masterfully captured how the titular character and her neuroses reflect the insidious darkness in nearly everyone else in the bloodline and those who willingly marry into it. Human drama, at this level, focuses on interpersonal interactions and engagement, which Shults reveals without resorting to broad jokes that a more mainstream movie would use to mask the escalating discomfort.

Once again, Shults brings the funk, just like that revolutionary track, without showy pyrotechnics or a need for narrative flourishes. “It Comes At Night” is all about settling into the groove, which Prince could do like no one else this side of the master himself, James Brown. And Shults gets major league assistance from executive producer and star Joel Edgerton, who enjoys walking down these kinds of dark streets and alleyways full of exiles and rejects. The same year “Krisha” crashed the scene, Edgerton exerted his multi-hyphenate muscles (writing, directing and co-starring in the creepy thriller “The Gift”) with genuinely tense and surprising effectiveness.

Edgerton mines similar territory here. His character, Paul, is a devoted husband (to Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah) and father (to newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis) caught up in a post-apocalyptic landscape where “something” has ravaged the human race, slowly transforming us into pus-seeping zombies who need to be killed and incinerated to prevent the sickness from spreading. The cunning move by Shults is in not exposing us to the fever-pitched battles to stave off hordes of infected or explanations about how the situation started. Instead, he treats us to an intimate scenario with this family as they struggle to move past the recent loss of Sarah’s father (David Pendleton) and its impact on them.

“It Comes At Night” is a story of survival, of doing whatever it takes to last through another day (and night), and we certainly appreciate how such acts challenge our social and cultural perspectives about what it means to be human. Shults takes an already shaken trio of characters and adds Will (Christopher Abbott), a likeminded survivor who spies their somewhat secure home and seeks to discover if it might accommodate his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).

Once this new family enters the picture, a subtle shift overtakes the story because we see the effect of the conditions on Travis, an older teen who has an awakening of sorts through his nocturnal interactions with Kim. While wholly innocent on the surface, even Kim recognizes the way Travis can’t help glancing at her, and as a viewer, we can’t help wondering what it would be like for a burgeoning young adult in such circumstances.

The genius of “It Comes At Night,” though, is that it never zeroes in on that one aspect, the questionable nature of any one perspective in the house, or what truly happened to the world at large. Shults simply sets up this intimate human chain of events and lets human nature take over.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that “It Comes At Night” will be a divisive viewing experience for audiences. Many audience members will be put off by the lack of specificity or the inconclusiveness of its outcome. Hollywood productions (and even a number of independent mystery/thrillers) have conditioned us to expect neatly developed narratives with straightforward conclusions. That is definitely not what Shults lays out here. What comes at night is what has always been lurking in the shadowy corners of our hearts and minds—the beast we’ve chained there, which is dressed up in a most familiar skin. So beware.