Writer and director Trey Edward Shults treats his audience with such respect that he doesn’t bore us too much with the specifics of this apocalyptic scenario. There is a disease that has wiped out most of humanity, turning your skin bumpy, your eyes different colors and your mouth a leaky fountain of black goo. If someone is infected, it’s best to put them out of their misery and burn the body. Simple enough, but not so easy when it’s a loved one that has to be put down.
The first victim we see is a grandfather, approaching death’s door with wheezing and weariness. A family of three wheels him out to the woods, silently shoot him and set his body aflame. For Paul (Joel Edgerton), he sees this as a necessity for survival, but his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) don’t find it as easy.
They don’t have much choice, however, as Paul runs a tight ship to keep his family alive. They’ve secluded themselves in a boarded-up home in the middle of the woods, free from the infected cities and desperate souls begging for a scrap of food or a drop of water. They have everything they need, from batteries to lanterns to recyclable water to a working car. It’s the most ideal of living conditions for such an apocalyptic scenario, but there is still a looming fear if someone were to break in or if the disease infects more family members.
Most important among Paul’s rules is to never venture outside the only door in the house to the woods when night falls. What happens during the night that makes the woods so dangerous? I don’t know and I doubt anyone in the house wants to find out either.
Tensions mount higher when Paul finds Will (Christopher Abbott) breaking into his house, desperately searching for supplies for his family. Paul doesn’t trust him, even when he finally meets Will’s wife and young child. Will makes a sufficient deal of trading livestock for room in Paul’s shelter, but trust is still low even in the most calming of scenes. There’s always a voice present in Paul’s mind that this family could try to steal their resources or may be infected. And given the recent death of a loved one and a gun-toting duo that ambushes him on the road, his fears are as understandable as they are unnerving.
Travis becomes a central point of the story as the most quiet, relatable and complicated character, where every sleep brings with it new nightmares. It’s impossible to shake the terror of what might be behind the door to the outside, what might be lurking in the woods and when the disease may strike him down. He spends more time listening than speaking, hiding away in the attic to hear every conversation, trying to comprehend the motivations of the adults.
His refusal to communicate past some passing conversations creates another barrier of paranoia, adding to his conflicted emotions that his dad might be wrong and that Will’s wife is too attractive to ignore. Travis has nightmares of being infected with his mouth vomiting black and his skin displaying bumps. Is this an early symptom of the disease? He doesn’t want to find out with his refusal to accept the very grim prospect of dying a quick death.