In his debut film, "Krisha," writer-director Trey Edward Shults took a drama about a fraught Thanksgiving family reunion and ratcheted up the intensity until it entered the realm of psychological horror. Now in his sophomore outing, the young filmmaker goes for full-on terror with the nightmarish, post-apocalyptic thriller "It Comes at Night." As you might expect, his unique skillset makes for a fairly seamless transition.
Set in a near-future where a highly contagious disease appears to have wiped out most of the population, the film centers on Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who've managed to survive on their own -- along with their dog, Stanley -- in their boarded-up house in the middle of the woods.
Travis is still processing the recent loss of his grandfather, who -- in the unsettling sequence that opens the film -- we witness Paul shoot in the head, then set the body aflame after the elderly man shows signs of infection. Shults doesn't waste a single moment on exposition about exactly how or why the sickness spread, and it's through Travis's somewhat traumatized eyes that the story plays out.
After that incident, the three live in peaceful seclusion for a time, until one night they're visited by Will (Christopher Abbott), who breaks in, thinking their home is abandoned. After subduing the intruder, Paul finds out that Will's hunting for supplies to take back to his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and young son (Griffin Robert Faulkner), who are waiting for him back in the empty house they're currently occupying.
Paul agrees to accompany Will back to his wife and child and eventually invites them to join his family in their home. After a quick orientation in which the newbies are familiarized with the strict rules of the house -- including only going out in pairs and never venturing outside after dark -- the two families share supplies and coexist happily together.
But as Travis is warned early on by his father, the only thing that he can trust is family, and soon grief, escalating paranoia, and ever-shifting power dynamics begin to cast doubts over the other family's motivations and what they might be hiding.
Kris Fenske's menacing sound design keeps us on edge, while the stunning cinematography from Drew Daniels calls to mind the original "Blair Witch Project" in its ability to make night feel like honest-to-God, pitch-black, terrifying night. With Daniels' expert work, Shults demonstrates a remarkable ability to prey on our fears about what danger lies just beyond our sight.
Sure, there are some easily-anticipated plot points, but really, there are only so many ways for survivalist thrillers of this type to play out. The film more than makes up for any familiarity with an expertly-crafted sense of dread and perfectly-pitched performances. Through it all, Shults keeps things grounded in real human emotion: facing the death of a loved one or the moment when one realizes your parents might not know everything after all. As in "Krisha," Shults is fascinated by the limits of family bonds, probing situations where our familial connections can either provide the strength to soldier on or bring the entire world crashing down around us.