There are horror movies, like The Belko Experiment, that examine just how quickly a state of paranoia and desperation can turn people against one another for survival. On the other hand, some horror movies, like A Quiet Place, examine the concept of family and the many hurtles that challenge the preservation of that familial bond. It Comes at Night is the twisted median between the two, and it makes for one hell of a disturbing ride.
At the start of the movie, we are introduced to the main character, Paul, who has secluded himself, his wife Sarah and son Travis, in a boarded up house deep in the woods. Apparently, a sort of apocalypse has hit, and people are dying from a gruesome disease. Complete isolation is key to survival for this family. But there is an even deeper psychological isolation the three characters have inhabited as a result of the unseen catastrophe that uprooted their lives.
Paul is just trying to keep his family alive, no matter what. The opening scene sees Paul mercy killing his infected father-in-law in front of Travis. The idea is to teach Travis the ugly necessities to survive their new post-apocalyptic reality, but the nonchalant attitude Paul takes while offing his son’s grandfather in front of him is what makes for a truly chilling moment. We may as well be watching a father teaching his son how to fish. Needless to say, this experience mind fucks young Travis. There is no affection with this family, barely even a smile between them. They’re staying alive, but they’re miserable.
Change takes place when the juxtaposing family of Will, his wife Kim, and son Andrew shack up with Paul and his family. Will’s family get to have their cake and eat it too in comparison to Paul’s. They’ve secluded themselves and taken the proper precautions to survive, but not at the sacrifice of their zest for life and warmth for each other. Not even the decimation of their old lives can break their bond. As time passes, it seems as though this new family’s sentiment is infecting a positivity within Paul’s family. Will teaches Travis how to chop wood, and keep a smile while doing it. Sarah even begins to rekindle a sentimental connection with her husband they haven’t shared for ages. It almost seems as though Will and his family moving in with Paul and his was the best thing to happen for the both of them. Almost.
After some peppered in nuggets of paranoia to set the third act stage, we get to the true horror of the story. Paul’s worst nightmare of letting strangers into his home comes true when the idea that little Andrew may be infected after a night of sleep walking. Watching this moment play out from an objective perspective is beyond frustrating. Both families want the exact same thing, and by the time Will gets the jump on Paul, it seems both parties can be left with an equal amount of resources to go their separate ways. Once Kim steps out of the room, sporting a shotgun, everything goes to hell.
It is here we find that the true apocalypse is not the pandemic occurring in the outskirts of the main narrative, it is the insanity manifested by the slightest of fears. Paul won’t take any chance of harm coming to his family, and his almost hypocritical human response is genuinely disturbing to witness. At this point, it’s not even clear if Andrew is infected or not, but Paul is too far gone, and after Sarah has already fatally shot Will in the hysteria, Paul does the unthinkable and wildly fires at Kim and Andrew as they run for their lives. The bullet kills Andrew instantly. The camera lingers on Paul, and as Kim’s chilling screams pierce the silence, it seems Paul may finally break down in disgust of what he and his family have become. Instead he buckles up and shoots Kim dead.
The great irony occurs moments later when Travis is revealed to be infected. This mad, climactic frenzy was all for nothing. The tension loosens, the movie eases to a calming pace and we finally see Paul break down in tears, alone, as he downs a bottle of whiskey he once shared with Will shortly before distrust took a snowball effect. The final shot is of Paul and Sarah sitting across from each other, both infected, awaiting the same cruel fate as the rest of their family.
Most movies rooted in the theme of family share the notion of preserving an innate connection and taking whatever steps necessary to preserve unity. It Comes at Night is one of the few that challenges that trope, and steeps us in the monstrosities that can occur from tribal preservation. We can recognize and respect Paul’s intense drive to keep his family alive, but at what point does his isolation from all outside sources turn into irrational fear? Will and his family aren’t as visibly cautious and vigilant over impending doom, they are simply thankful to still be alive and together. They want to make the life they have count. This raises some serious red flags from Paul’s perspective. He can’t help but feel skeptical of this other father’s approach to his family’s security. Will and Paul have the same instinct to safeguard their families, but it is this inherent attribute that leads to the downfall of all they hold sacred.