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It Comes at Night

If you go down to the woods in writer-director Trey Edward Shults' efficient psychological thriller, you're sure of a nasty surprise. Set in the aftermath of a viral outbreak that has decimated America, It Comes At Night gradually tightens the thumbscrews until we're prickled with the same paranoia as the characters. The desire to protect and preserve overrides the fear of death in Shults' lean script, which transforms men into monsters inside a claustrophobic family home with boarded up windows and tightly bolted doors. Friendship counts for little in the midst of this brutal and sometimes bloody battle for survival. As one anguished father reminds his son: "You can't trust nobody but family... as good as they seem." Shults heightens tension without recourse to cheap scares such as someone careening out of the darkness or a staccato blast of strings on the soundtrack. Instead, characters continually trade suspicious glances, searching for tiny signs of betrayal that might warrant a twitch of their sweat-glistened trigger fingers. When violence explodes, it's graphic and ugly, and the moral compasses of good men whirl sickeningly out of control in the name of love. A virulent contagion, which manifests as blackened eyes and pus-filled boils, has swept the globe. History teacher Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) ride out the storm with their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and Sarah's elderly father Bud (David Pendleton) in their fortified home in the woods. The old man succumbs to infection. He is hastily quarantined then shot and his ravaged body is incinerated in a shallow grave. Soon after, the grief-stricken family wakes to noises in the house. The burglar is a desperate man called Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims to be looking for water for his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). "My family's all that matters to me - I know you can understand that," pleads the intruder. Paul reluctantly agrees to allow Will's brood to nest in the house, where everyone abides by two rules: keep the front door locked and never venture outside at night. The clans gel beautifully and there is laughter for the first time in months but Paul is painfully aware that they live in a merciless time when compassion can get you killed. It Comes At Night milks suspense from a simple premise and tease ambiguities so we're literally in the dark with the characters, unsure how they will react to unforeseen danger. A glut of nightmarish fantasy sequences slackens the pacing but does force us to question the trustworthiness of some family members. Edgerton and Abbott deliver compelling performances as fierce protectors, who let their guards down at their peril. A sucker punch finale wallops them and us when we're down.