This gruesome, violent, backwoods-gothic noir is directed by Antonio Campos (known for his more intimate chillers such as Afterschool and Christine) and adapted from the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock – and it’s the author himself who supplies the deadpan drawl of narration. In the small town of Knockemstiff, Ohio (name not made up), grisly horrors metastasise over generations.
Tom Holland plays Arvin, a troubled orphan teen, haunted by the loss of his parents; his stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) has a chilling connection with a creepy local couple, Carl and Sandy (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), who have a penchant for driving around picking up hitchhikers: these trusting young men tend to go missing afterwards. They’re also connected with the corrupt cop, Sheriff Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) and Lenora’s path is also going to cross with that of the Reverend Preston Teagardin, played with saturnine menace by Robert Pattinson: a florid, sinister preacher who wears a frilly dress shirt and declaims his sermons with an exotic Suth’n twang, denouncing the “day‑loozh‑uns” of the sinner.
It’s a thoroughly macabre story, populated by a sweaty gallery of geeks and grotesques, the story running from the 1940s to the 1960s (it’s really only the pop music that alerts you to any historical difference, and that’s probably accurate). The film is handsomely produced and confidently put together, with a performance of particularly plausible ickiness from Pattinson as the noisome Teagardin, who among all his other failings is a hateful snob, humiliating Arvin’s grandma because of the allegedly low-grade cooking she brings to his church cook-out. But there is something weirdly pointless about it all, and there is a kind of tonal gap where, in another kind of film, the humour might go – which would counterweight the nasty violence. But it sure does pack a punch.