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It Comes at Night
★★★ out of four stars
Rated: R for violence, disturbing images and language.

Following his electrifying feature debut with the dark psychological family drama “Krisha,” writer/director Trey Edward Shults gives us this art house horror film, which feels like a strong evolutionary step forward. It’s a spare, episodic, difficult story about families with deep problems and few options. Shults knits together familiar tropes and images into a disturbing noose and tightens it around your neck scene by scene, shot by shot. It’s not for the squeamish, and not for the unobservant viewer, either.

Practical, resourceful Paul (Joel Edgerton), thoughtful Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are introduced in a nightmarish farewell to a relative. Terrifying dreams about such scenes come to Travis nightly. Whatever else haunts the family’s big cabin in the woods is for each viewer to piece together at an individual rate.

Something is making artistic, hormonal Travis sleep beside a copy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death,” an apocalyptic portrait of hell on Earth with no salvation in sight. Something is causing him to carry a camp lantern inside the darkened house and make nightly visits to check its only connection to the outside world, a blood-red door closed with an iron latch.

Shults leaves it to us to imagine what scenario holds the family captive. A clever minimalist, he knows that what he could explain could never match what we imagine. His focus is on the family’s response when an intruder arrives. Will (Christopher Abbott) pledges nonviolence and implores help for his own young wife and child. Can the tender moments between Paul, Travis and Sarah admit others? Wait and see.

The film’s central theme is the limitations of humans facing chaotic circumstances, reflected in Bruegel’s bleak images of Europe’s ruin after wars with Spain. Paul, a former history teacher, jokingly asks Will, “Wanna know all about the Roman Empire?” The lesson here is a stark examination of the costs of preserving one’s own survival.

There is not a performance that is in any way weak. The otherworldly soundtrack is fire and brimstone set to music. While not every long tracking shot feels essential, at an hour and a half, the film doesn’t overstay its effectiveness. This is a journey designed to leave you saturated with rawboned terror and despair. It wants us to consider our values in this world and contemplate what might follow. In that harsh mission, it is powerfully effective.

COLIN COVERT

Megan Leavey
★ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements.

Although they are film perennials, human/canine love stories are generally alike, based on fantasy and rarely set in war zones. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s drama is, which makes it remarkable, innovative, but not particularly good.

Inspired by the real-life experiences of Marine Cpl. Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) and Rex, the bomb-sniffing German shepherd she handled on the front lines in Iraq, it is a sincere, messy, frequently overacted bore.

Leavey and the proud, aggressive but teachable Rex become a crucial pair of safety scouts for troops on the front lines. Separated from her beloved dog at the end of her tour, she returns to civilian life with no focus more powerful than adopting him. I have seen films in which women weep over dead children, but I have never seen sustained torrents of tears like Leavey’s bawling over her missing Rex.

The film shows the national campaign Leavey mounted to win permission to adopt Rex as if it outstrips every other outrage. Cowperthwaite, who made the excellent documentary “Blackfish,” exposing the abusive treatment of a performing killer whale, knows how to make a story about trainers and their animal charges that touches the heart. But here her work is a by-the-numbers exercise.

C.C.

Past Life
★★★ out of four stars
Unrated by the MPAA.
Theater: Lagoon.

This uneven but ultimately effective drama, set in 1970s Israel, follows two sisters who set out to uncover the truth about what their father did in order to survive the Holocaust.

Sephi (Joy Rieger) and Nana (Nelly Tagar) are taken aback when a fellow Holocaust survivor tells them that they are the daughters of a murderer. They know that their father (Doron Tavory) is an unbending, humorless type. But a killer? They’re afraid of learning the truth, but even more afraid of not knowing it.

Writer/director Avi Nesher gets sidetracked by melodramatic subplots about Sephi’s dreams of becoming a classical composer and Nana’s marriage to the publisher of a sleazy magazine that runs stories like “Swedish Girls Are Importing Sex to the Kibbutz.” But whenever you’re tempted to lose patience, the film’s core emotional conviction pulls you back into the proceedings.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times