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Review: The Evening Hour Is an Unconvincing Display of Appalachian Misery Porn

In spite of the film’s strikingly lived-in sense of place, the script’s melodramatic storytelling works against that verisimilitude.

1.5
The Evening Hour
Photo: Strand Releasing

Appalachia holds a particular fascination for filmmakers, who’ve capitalized on the inherent tensions of the region’s culture to spin tales of outlaw heroism and betrayal, as well as frontier justice. Braden King’s The Evening Hour, based on a novel by Carter Sickels, is no exception, even if it attempts a more contemplative approach to its tale of drug dealers surrounded by nature and gripped by a general sense of existential despair.

In his dying Kentucky mining town, Cole Freeman (Philip Ettinger) has a good operation going. Caring for the elderly folks in the community by day, he makes extra money on the side by selling their excess painkillers to local addicts. Having come to a tenuous agreement to conduct business on the terrain of local drug kingpin Everett (Marc Menchaca), Cole keeps his morality in check by refusing to get any deeper into the trade than he needs to while dutifully attending to his sick grandfather (Frank Hoyt Taylor). But despite the relative tranquility of his lifestyle and a fledgling romantic relationship with long-time friend Charlotte Carson (Stacy Martin), Cole feels increasingly boxed in by the only place he’s ever called home.

Cole’s restlessness grows even more intense when his grandfather dies and his long-absent mother, Ruby (Lili Taylor), breezes into town for the funeral, stirring up once-dormant feelings of childhood neglect and pain. At the same time, a more dramatic disruption of his life occurs with the re-emergence of an old buddy, Terry Rose (Cosmo Jarvis), a troublemaker who gets wind of Cole’s hustle and immediately aims to start up a meth-cooking business—a capital-B bad idea that raises the ire of Everett while threatening to drag Cole down with it.

Much as he did in mapping out the Armenian countryside in 2011’s Here, King pays particular attention to the topography of the Appalachian landscape, with cinematographer Declan Quinn’s painterly compositions soaking in its natural beauty. The area is so densely atmospheric that it almost becomes a character of its own, living and breathing as a realm where it can be easy to hide from your demons and even easier to be consumed by them.

In spite of the film’s strikingly lived-in sense of place, however, the script’s melodramatic storytelling works against that verisimilitude. The film is initially pitched as a quiet rumination on loss and reinvention, but an abundance of trite dialogue and hollow emotional declarations soon lend the proceedings a distractingly artificial quality. And while the actors are uniformly solid, you can never quite shake that they’re all playing “hillbilly dress-up.”

Switching gears around its midway point, the film proceeds as a mashup of crime thriller tropes but does so in a banal fashion that stands in contrast to Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace and Anthony Jerjen’s Inherit the Viper, which, whatever their flaws, have the courage of their exploitative convictions. At one point in The Evening Hour, Everett savagely beats up a local dealer while screaming, “You’re in some dangerous territory…mine!” It’s one of several cliché moments in the film that jarringly undermine its otherwise delicate ambience.

Because King’s background includes installation-based projects and experimental documentaries, you may find yourself wishing that he had just stripped away The Evening Hour’s story elements altogether for a more abstract and intuitive look at the essence of the mountainous Appalachian region depicted in the film. Which is to say, from a less privileged perspective on how the poor and underrepresented in this region of America actually live. Unfortunately, though, The Evening Hour ends up reducing its evocative environment to nothing more than a set for an unconvincing display of Appalachian misery porn.

Cast: Philip Ettinger, Stacy Martin, Cosmo Jarvis, Michael Trotter, Kerry Bishe, Marc Menchaca, Ross Partridge, Ashley Shelton, Frank Hoyt Taylor, Tess Harper, Lili Taylor Director: Braden King Screenwriter: Elizabeth Palmore Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 114 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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