It Comes At Night and the Rise of Trey Edward Shults

By  · Published on January 5th, 2017


Why audiences should keep an eye out for the young auteur’s sophomore feature.

A still from Shults’ breakthrough debut, KRISHA (2016)

There is perhaps no greater hurdle a director must face in the first stages of their career than their sophomore feature. After all, what good is a great debut if the director fails to fulfill its promise of an exciting career? Many directors were able to return with smash hits at festivals, such as Damien Chazelle with Whiplash, or Andrea Arnold with Fish Tank. A few even followed up with instant classics, like Sofia Coppola did with Lost in Translation or Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights. But sadly, many breakthrough directors instead fade from view, their careers halted by either a bad film or an inability to finance their next project. Only time will tell for the former, but things are looking good for 27-year old director Trey Edward Shults, who has been given the opportunity and funds by A24 to follow up his acclaimed debut, Krisha, with this year’s post-apocalyptic horror film, It Comes At Night.

Shults broke into the scene in the spring of 2015 when Krisha premiered at SXSW, taking both its Audience and Grand Jury prizes. The film was deemed a “ferociously impressive debut” by Variety, with Indiewire even claiming that it summoned “shades of Robert Altman… and calls to mind Ingmar Bergman.” Only two months later, Krisha was invited to play a coveted spot at the Cannes Critics’ Week, where Shults found a kindred spirit in A24; the indie powerhouse picked up the distribution rights to Krisha and optioned his next feature, a two-picture deal that invoked memories of the mutual friendship between directors and studios that pervaded throughout the American New Wave era. Krisha was given a limited release in March of last year to nearly universal acclaim and, while it made little box office impact (as expected of any truly great micro-budget film), it has since found a special place in the hearts of critics and filmgoers everywhere. The film was featured on many year-end Top Ten lists including mine, or more impressively, a number one spot on a list by John Waters himself. And recently, it swept multiple first-time filmmaker and breakthrough awards at the Indie Spirit and Gotham Awards. Film students everywhere now aspire to be the next Trey Shults.

For any sorry readers who have yet to experience it, Krisha is best described as an explosive hybrid of dysfunctional family drama and a portrait of addiction, with a touch of documentary: the players are Shults’ own family playing themselves, and the action of the film is confined to the house in which he grew up. The story follows a mysterious, estranged aunt (played unforgettably by Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ aunt) who returns home for Thanksgiving after being away in recovery for over a decade, but things quickly go south as her inner demons and unshakeable feeling of intrusion threaten to sabotage her seemingly simple mission. Set over a single day, initial standout scenes include its disorienting opening long take where Krisha struggles to find the house or a wildly orchestrated kitchen sequence that masterfully captures the anxiety of a family get-together. But as the sun sets, the stakes rise and emotions come to a boil – you might not be able to take the devastation by the time Krisha has a critical heart-to-heart with her sister (Robyn Fairchild, Shults’ own mother who has never acted before, impresses more than most Best Actress winners of the last decade). Many reviews have compared Krisha Fairchild to Gena Rowlands before quickly reiterating that Fairchild falls short of the iconic actress and, while she might not have Rowlands’ illustrious filmography or legacy, it is in the opinion of this writer that her performance is just as fearless and true.

One of the most common observations that viewers made of Krisha was that it played like a horror movie, with an ever-present sense of dread and impending catastrophe, and a score from rising indie composer Brian McOmber (A Teacher) full of cacophonous percussion and stomach-dropping strings. So, it feels only right that Shults’ follow-up, It Comes At Night, is an actual horror film. Largely set in a secluded house in the woods, it centers around a father who will stop at nothing to protect his family from a dangerous presence at their very doorstep. Shults is already showing the consistent themes and patterns of an auteur and insists that, while the film will remain as personal as Krisha as well as retain its themes of family, it will be “even more intense” and use the full emotional potential of the horror genre. The film was written by Shults shortly after the passing of his father, with whom he had an estranged relationship.

“It comes from a deeply personal place. The opening scene is literally what I was saying to my dad on his deathbed.”

he told ScreenCrush. “I was bawling writing that scene, but then I wrote out a narrative that has nothing to do with it, but it’s still coming from those emotions.” Shults does not refer to the film as his foray into the world of indie horror, so much as it is his “version of a horror film.” In a time where slashers and other bloody thrillers have gone from a happy resurgence to a tired monotony, It Comes At Night should be at the top of any horror fan or cinephile’s most anticipated films of 2017.

The cast of It Comes At Night. From left to right: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Carmen Ejogo

Another reason to be excited about the film is the cast which Shults has now armed himself with. Having proved his ability to nurture bold, raw performances from non-actors, he has now been given the chance to work with A-list and up-and-coming indie talent. Headlining the cast is bonafide star Joel Edgerton, fresh off of Jeff Nichols’ award-contender Loving, as well as indie favorite Christopher Abbott, who very nearly landed an Oscar nomination for his earth-shaking turn in James White. Also starring is Riley Keough (a dynamite newcomer known for Mad Max: Fury Road and last year’s American Honey) and Carmen Ejogo (who wowed as Coretta Scott King in Selma). One can only imagine the cathartic performances this cast will bring to the table with a director as talented with actors as Shults at the helm.

Also on the project are associate producers Justin Chan and Wilson Smith (who both produced Krisha with Chase Joliet and are longtime friends of Shults) who I spoke to for this piece. “Seeing Trey grow from his early short films to his second feature film, his unwavering vision for storytelling and filmmaking continues to mature in his passion for creating unique films,” Chan tells me. About the project itself, Smith describes Night as a ‘‘a post-apocalyptic story of fear and family.” He also mentions the “hauntingly vivid cinematography” from Drew Daniels who returns from Krisha as director of photography – a rising star in his own right. Also returning is Brian McOmber, who will no doubt deliver one of the strangest and most unsettling scores of the year to come. Producing are David Kaplan (It Follows, Short Term 12) and Andrea Roa (Drinking Buddies).

While A24 has yet to release more official details about the film beyond a cast and plot synopsis, one thing is for certain: Shults will not shy away from exploring heavy themes. “Death, fear, regret. Heavy stuff, which I think is more palatable in a genre film or else it’s going to be a rough movie,” he told ScreenCrush. “The closest thing I can think of is The Babadook.” If Krisha was Shults grappling with addiction, It Comes At Night may be his reckoning with death itself.

“Man, I hope Krisha isn’t the best film I ever make,” Shults confesses candidly in an interview with Film Comment. A reasonable concern for any filmmaker fresh off a successful outing, but one that Shults might not have to worry about for a very long time.

It Comes At Night will be released by A24 in late 2017.

21. Filmmaker. Writer for Film School Rejects. Featured on MTV, Indiewire & The A.V. Club.