Almost certainly the gentlest drama you’ll ever see about the collateral damage of the opioid crisis, Braden King’s “The Evening Hour” shines on a rural Appalachian town like a golden ray of fading sunlight; as dark as the story gets, this hyper-empathetic film never fails to see its characters as decent people trying to make the best of a bad situation. This is the kind of movie that opens with someone reading a Bible verse over a shot of mountain grass swaying in the wind as the first woozy strains of Boxhead Ensemble’s score prepare to take your breath away.
Which isn’t to say that “The Evening Hour” elides the awfulness of the epidemic; that same opening shot pans across the landscape in time to see an ominous explosion in the distance. Every frame is saturated with a sense of quiet desperation. The rival drug pushers inevitably pull their guns on each other, and even the kindest intentions have a way of souring into sadness. It’s just that King and screenwriter Elizabeth Palmore — taking their cues from Carter Sickels’ 2012 novel of the same name — are less interested in the weight of all that pain than they are in how it’s shared among a community of close families, old flames, and new faces.
There can be a thin line between helping and hurting someone, and King’s film is most effective when it explores how the mass proliferation of opioids has blurred that line to a regularly fatal degree. If “The Evening Hour” often loses sight of the big picture whenever the plot begins to overpower its characters, that’s only because it can’t help itself from falling into the same trap that it identifies so well.
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The movie’s core warmth radiates from Cole Freeman (the grounded Philip Ettinger), a sweet and handsome charmer whose one-day-at-a-time way of life couldn’t be further removed from that of the short-lived fatalist he played in “First Reformed.” By day, Cole works as an aide at the local nursing home, and he seems to genuinely enjoy his job; none of the other staffers are so natural or pleasant with the patients. By night (or really any time he’s off the clock), Cole makes the bulk of his cash selling Oxy to some of the townsfolk he’s known his whole life. It’s a small operation that mostly involves buying pills off people with prescriptions — Cole never steals them from the nursing home — and he’s genuinely concerned for each of his customers. If he wasn’t selling to them, they’d have to get their stuff from the area’s threatening kingpin (Marc Menchaca).
But if Cole keeps things on the down-low, his drug business isn’t exactly a secret. His girlfriend Charlotte (Stacy Martin) is in on it — she clings to him the same way that a small-town cheerleader might cling to the high-school quarterback — and his childhood friend Terry Rose (“Lady Macbeth” breakout Cosmo Jarvis, made almost unrecognizable by how naturally he wears the Rust Belt) comes back to town with the explicit intention of siphoning some money from Cole’s new cashflow. It seems the only people who don’t know how he’s saving up to move away are his grandparents, his co-worker Ellen (Ashley Shelton), and her nice cop boyfriend (Ross Partridge). But things are starting to get out of hand — the sense of need is growing more urgent by the minute. And when Cole’s mom (Lili Taylor) suddenly returns home from several years in absentia, it seems as if things are about to boil over.
But “The Evening Hour” heats up slowly, as though it were boiling its characters alive. Sometimes the movie feels as though it’s not moving forward at all, only sinking deeper into the ground. Declan Quinn’s dewy cinematography drinks in the local flavor, the natural but evocative lighting helping to split the difference between hope and hardship. Even at its most unmoored, the film is buoyed by a vivid sense of place; it’s set in the kind of town where the bars are all wood-paneled, the neon signs burn extra bright to distract people from the darkness around them, and everybody knows everybody’s business. As “The Evening Hour” grows later, you start to feel when the air changes; Cole’s mom shows up in a red sweater that cuts into the forest-green neighborhood like the entire town is about to bleed.
And it does, but it becomes more difficult to trace that pain back to its wounds, especially when the film grows more determined to articulate the vague sense of home Cole has lost forever. Spotty flashbacks hint at a half-baked nostalgia, while an overextended cast of underdeveloped female characters pulls the story away from its center. Taylor doesn’t get a chance to leave her mark as Cole’s estranged mom, as the movie never follows through on the promise of her return. Martin is wholly believable in the role of a girl who keeps digging herself deeper as she tries to climb out of this sunken town — Charlotte epitomizes almost everyone she knows, in that respect — but she fades into the background once her function is made clear.
But nobody is more wasted than the reliably winsome Kerry Bishé (“Halt and Catch Fire”), who sparks the story to life as a new option for Cole before her subplot stalls out in a hurry. It’s commendable how — even with such a CW-worthy cast of beautiful people — “The Evening Hour” keeps its romanticism somewhat in check. But the film halfheartedly reaches in enough different directions that it begins to feel like more of a sustained tone than a clear narrative, and the Terry-centric third act lacks the heft and history that it needs to bring Cole’s journey home. King clearly wants to do right by these people, but at a certain point his empathy begins to hurt the film as much as it helps it, leaving us with the unsolvable irony of a movie that rings true only when it goes off the rails.
“The Evening Hour” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.