Streaming on Netflix, this film is punishingly dark. It is a deep dive into the horrors we inflict on one another. It boasts some incredible performances and an aesthetic that seeps under the skin. However, it feels like it’s missing an essential element in its exploration of evil.
The film follows a series of loosely related characters in two small towns in Ohio and West Virginia in the days after WWII. The films characters pass loosely through the narrative. They inhabit the screen until their stories run their courses then the film moves on to the next set of characters. The most prominent stories follow a returning veteran named Willard played by Bill Skarsgard. Willard is haunted by the horrible things he say in the Pacific theater during the war. However, he keeps that evil at bay as he meets a beautiful woman and has a family. Tragedy hits his family and Willard descends into despair and commits terrible acts himself that scar his son. His son grows up to be Arvin, played by Tom Holland. Holland does a beautiful job of conveying the weight of his troubled psyche as he outwardly expresses ease and a carefree nature. Arvin runs a foul of the local preacher Reverend Teagardin,, played by Robert Pattinson. Pattinson has come a long way as an actor since his says a sexy, sparkly, vampire with fwoopy hair. Here is absolutely disgusting. He is skeazy and nasty and sweaty. He abuses his power and takes advantage of the young ladies in his congregation. Arvin is very protective of his sister as displayed by some intense violence earlier in his story, and he and the preacher have an incredibly intense showdown late in the film.
Dispersed among these characters are a dozen or so others. There’s another preacher who commits an unspeakably cruel act in order to test his faith. There is a couple who like to pick up hitchhikers and inflict evil upon them. There is a sherif who is a pathetic and insufferable puke who struggles with his ambition and his duty. The trend should be pretty clear. Bad people doing bad things. This movie embraces some harrowing storylines and explores some of the worst people imaginable. That said it never fully loses a sense of hope. It never closes the door on the idea of human decency.
These actors are all giving truly great performances. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast. Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson received most of the early praise, but Sebastian Stan deserves credit for looking as ugly as he could in the role of the sheriff. He really inhabits his part and gives it his all. One of the toughest roles goes to Riley Keough. She plays one half of the psycho hitchhiker couple. She takes the character from a fun loving young woman excited to do everything, to a woman who is haunted by the screams and struggling to come to terms with who she is and what she’s done. Ever actor in this movie walks a tightrope of being too despicable to watch and being human enough to care about. No one becomes a full blown cliche here. We’ve all seen the sweaty southern preacher before, but never quite the way Pattinson plays it. We know the veteran haunted by the war, but Skarsgard finds new nuances and shading to give this character. The actors keep us involved even when their actions become indefensible.
I have a few big problems with the movie, the first is its treatment of its female characters. For the most part, they are victims. They have little control over their own lives. They respond to what the men in their lives do. They are often given little to do in the film. Haley Bennett and Mia Wasikowska in particular are just wives who smile a lot until bad things happen. These are great actresses who deserve real parts. The movie is not especially cruel to the women in the movie, it just doesn’t seem to know what to do with them other than as objects for the men.
This movie will not be for everyone. If you don’t like violence, please skip this movie. If you don’t like really intense movies that ratchet up the tension until it finally bursts, this movie won’t be for you. If you can stomach it though it is really well executed. The director here is Antonio Campos. It’s his fifth featured as director, and man does he pack a punch. He has a great eye for framing and a fantastic sense for building up tension. The violence feels real. The cruelty and evil on display feels earned and never gratuitous.
The real problem comes when trying to answer the question of why. Why do these characters do the horrible things they do? Some are pretty clearly motivated. War trauma, religious fanaticism, and revenge are all clearly laid out as motivators, but the deeper question of why is left untouched. The film never really gets to the heart of evil and why people do what they do. It could be inferred from the title, that these characters lives are all just touched by the devil. The devil made them do it, but that doesn’t feel true. The film seems to be saying something more about the nature of evil, but the message isn’t clear. There is a bit of righteous violence as the most evil are done away with by an avenging angel type character, but that doesn’t seem to be the theme the film is striving toward. Muddled messaging usually handicaps a film, but here the filmmaking is so solid, that it sort of balances out in the end. Each story in this film seems to have its own purpose and its own reason for the violence it depicts. This doesn’t create a thematically cohesive piece, but it does create a more or less satisfying story experience.
All in all, it’s worth watching for the tremendous acting on display. Its filmmaking craft is undeniable. It’s violence and evil are a lot to be endured, but if you can stomach it you might a worthwhile story or two in here. It’s mostly my cup of tea. B+