Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ (Krisha) sophomore feature won’t do much to re-affirm anyones faith in humanity under pressure, but it will put the screws to the viewer for a lean, nerve-wracking 90 minutes. Don’t be fooled by the trailer — it’s less of a horror movie and more of a slow-burn psychological thriller, a brilliant study in how unchecked fear and paranoia can boil over suddenly.
Shults puts a fresh spin on an old scenario, in part by leaving some of the details to the imagination. The movie opens on a boarded-up house deep in unspecified woods, as elderly Bud (David Pendleton) is succumbing to an unidentified disease, comforted by his daughter Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). The old man is, for lack of a better word, euthanized by his son-in-law, Paul (Joel Edgerton) and 17-year-old grandson, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The death is mercy, but its weight lingers throughout the film.
There’s every indication that the outside world has collapsed in some manner, though the specifics are never revealed. Late one night, they capture a man, Will (Christopher Abbott), breaking into their home. He’s desperate, seeking shelter for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Paul and his family reluctantly take them in, and there attempt at communal living is initially successfully. Still, this is a post-apocalypse world, even if it does have an idyllic visual backdrop, and the inevitable tensions arise, punctuated by Travis’ recurring nightmares and coming of age.
It’s a modest piece, but Shults’ confidence and knack for understatement combined with Drew Daniels’ inky, shadow-drenched cinematography lend the movie a creeping sense of dread. It ranks with some of the best film and television works that have explored the notion that no matter how hard one tries, there’s no shutting out the outside world — which may not even be worse than what’s already lurking inside the house.