By Adam Nayman
There are probably more prudent ways to follow-up a left-field art-house blockbuster—and all-time-unlikely Best Picture nominee—than with an inscrutable, distinctly un-crowd-pleasing feel-bad eco-horror shape shifter, but even when experimenting with alienation effects, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is gifted enough that festival juries simply have to hand it to him. At a Biennale stacked with auteurs (including a number of Americans who were arguably due for prizes), Evil Does Not Exist was the unlikely runner-up to Poor Things, confirming its maker’s stature along with his chops, which get a work out here from the first frame.
The mood here is steady, inexorable dread a la Hamaguchi’s former teacher and sometime collaborator Kiyoshi Kurosawa; more specifically, Evil Does Not Exist recalls Kiyoshi’s awesome Charisma (2000), whose unsettling battle cry “restore the rules of the world” hovers over this story of a rural Japanese community fending off short-sighted corporate developers. The question here is “whose rules?”: Nature’s— coolly elucidated by local woodcutter Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) to his young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa)—or those imposed by the emissaries of late capitalism; in response, the unnervingly mobile camera work and throbbing electronic score suggest a world buckling under its own broken dialectics. Understandably, a lot of the early attention has focused on the film’s abrupt and enigmatic wind-up, which is fair enough given its power, but it’s not as if it’s come out of nowhere; like the best horror movies, Evil Does Not Exist interweaves ellipticism and plangency on a molecular level until they’re somehow one and the same.