This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Jay D 's Watching’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
aka Tom Holland kills his way across the backwoods of Ohio
Caveat: I have not read the novel of the same name that this film is based on by Donald Ray Pollock-I will note that a lot of people like it, and it has been placed squarely in the tradition (and compared to) the work of writers like Faulkner and McCarthy and O'Connor, all writers who I like, and who--I think significantly, are all very powerful stylists-writers who are good at capturing the intangible.
I've talked on letterboxd reviews before of being favorably inclined to films if they can capture that doom-soaked vibe of small-town, scotch-irish fatalist plodding through the rules of a distant society under the eye of corrupt human officials and a god that hates you--that that plugs into some layers of the family tree, and that it's a matter of style as much as subject, having a sense of what it is to live in a landscape that's haunted all the time.
I'm going to be charitable as I haven't read it, and assume the positive reviews have merit, that there's a lot of that style (there seems to be, from the reviews I've looked at) and that people aren't just lazily connecting 'corrupt preacher, failed faith healer, corrupt cop, serial killers roaming highways, emotionally tortured rural loner attached to family who doesn't fit in, etc' as shorthand tropes to check off on the narrative's family tree. Because my goodness there are a lot of tropes, a lot of characters (many of them seemingly aspiring to grotesque and not quite getting there) and a lot of plot threads, most of them drifting listlessly along, bumping into, and tangling around each other until, odds are, Tom Holland, with a backwoods accent, comes along and resolves them with gunfire and a haunted look. Rinse, wash, repeat.
I don't think I'm exaggerating about the style. This book may have a sense of place, and of the family trees and hidden crimes that come with living in such a place, but the direction, by Antonio Campos, feels remarkably flat and removed, not so much that he has a sense of the place as though he's gawking at it from the window of a moving car, and isn't it scary that anything could happen back in those trees? (I may be unfair reader--there ARE some directorial flourishes that capture a bit of this--the problem is, the first sequence that had that haunted quality, for me, a shot from behind of a car drifting through the woods at dusk, came at about the 90 minute mark of this thing) -the washed out sense of a camera operator that's gaping relies a lot on viewer novelty-and in a film that's this repetitive (I am not kidding about the use of guns in the second half of the film) that wears off FAST.
It's not just the direction, either. The music is largely flat and unremarkable, the performances are all over the map (Holland does a decent job in what feels like a tryhard sort of situation, but he's...miscast-as is Sebastian Stan--the MCU veterans only adding to the misery tourism feel of the film--Bill Skarsgard on the other hand, has the right eyes and physicality for his part, but he exits early. Jason Clarke is....Jason Clarke, and it's one of the film's bitter ironies that Riley Keough's character doesn't think, in all her murders, to take HIM out. Robert Pattinson gives a remarkably one-note performance that seems to suggest he knew it was a stinker--unfortunately, he is in scenes mostly with actors playing it straight and sincere, and the end result is a showcase that protects him, but keeps the potboiler elements abrupt and undercooked. And I feel worst of all for poor Mia Wasikowska, who's part is one of those bits where I felt guilty for laughing out loud at what happened--a remarkable scene framing perhaps, a total failure of human behavior by another character who subsequently got off easy for his brain meltdown, exiting the picture early on and leaving my brain to melt down instead.
The film's most curious gambit though is near-constant narration throughout (With editorializing) by the writer of the novel, Mr Pollock himself. I'm not sure if his narration is taken from the novel itself, or what he's reading is an adaptation (I hope it's an adaptation) but his constant tone has the weird effect of telling the viewer what they should be feeling throughout while muffling those same feelings under a weird, half-backed layer of thick backwoods snark that plods along until it gets to an ending that SHOULD feel like a release, a cathartic escape into a new world and all its ambiguities, but largely just feels like a dude who's tired after all that killings and needs to fall asleep (much like the viewer, har har) -and it's remarkable when you realize how much of the character motivation and inner struggle, how much of what we're supposed to be picking up on, is IN that narration--how little of it is on screen, a fact which only emphasizes how flat a lot of these performances are--how a lot of the actors seem to be struggling in their own little voids throughout, a la Pattinson, albeit with less flamboyance.
Don't take my word for it though--feel free to watch it yourself. Just be prepared to feel like you killed more than two hours and twenty minutes viewing it.