Review | Evil Does Not Exist | 2024

There is something almost unspeakably beguiling about Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's Evil Does Not Exist. The filmmaker behind Drive My Car (a 3-hour meditation on loneliness and Chekov that was so stunning even the Academy couldn't help but nominate it for Best Picture) and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is no stranger to thoughtful and introspective dramas. Still, his latest film feels even more ambiguous and unsettled, a meditative tale of people from disparate backgrounds whose destinies collide in the forest surrounding a rural Japanese village where a Tokyo-based talent agency plans to build a glamping site to attract affluent tourists from the city to get a taste of country living.

On the surface, the film appears to be a story about big city interlopers wreaking havoc on an idyllic small town, yet Hamaguchi is interested in something much deeper and more contemplative. The key is in the film's title, a nod to the idea that our downfalls are often brought about less by evil as a literal force, and more by simple human foibles and helplessness in the face of nature, whose elements can be both beautiful and deadly, an unfeeling force against which humanity is ultimately defenseless.

At the center of Hamaguchi's haunted parable is Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a local handyman who spends his days doing chores for local business folk. His daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) is mostly left free to roam the almost mythical forests that surround the tiny town, a forest that becomes a target for a cynical talent agency hoping to capitalize on government subsidies by building a hastily planned glamping facility that is met with suspicion and vocal criticism by the locals. The lack of care in creating the facility shows the company's lack of respect for both the local citizens and for the natural world they seek to exploit, inviting city folk to spend time in the woods in an untamed environment with the illusion of both safety and authenticity, the seemingly bucolic site actually polluting the natural order and the all-important water supply for the town.

Then Hamaguchi does something quite unexpected - he turns the focus onto the two representatives of the talent agency. It turns out these aren't just soulless venture capitalists (even if they may represent some) because they too are enchanted by the small town's simple pleasures, free from the hustle and bustle of city life and the soul-crushing drudgery of their corporate jobs. Yet their presence upsets the delicate balance of the village, and the proverbial road to hell becomes paved with good intentions. 

There's a lot going on beneath the surface of Evil Does Not Exist. The gorgeous cinematography, coupled with the dreamy score by Eiko Ishibashi, creates an atmosphere that is both beautiful and menacing, an unknowable landscape that harbors both wonders and horrors. We're all just people trying to make it and carve out our own place in a world uninterested in our designs - a dispassionate Eden indifferent to our struggles, desires, and feelings, fighting back against our own incursion. If that sounds fatalistic - it isn't really. If anything, Hamaguchi's vision is deeply empathetic; a lyrical tone poem with the heart of a pressure cooker about humanity's innate and sometimes contradictory desire to find somewhere to belong, even in a place that rejects them. Evil Does Not Exist is a film whose sensual pleasures continue to reveal themselves, whose themes reveal deeper layers the more they're peeled away. It's small and rapturous wonder that cements Hamaguchi as one of our most compelling contemporary filmmakers.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

EVIL DOES NOT EXIST | Directed by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi | Stars Hitoshi Omika, Ryo Nishikawa, Ryuji Kosaka, Ayaka Shibutani, Hazuki Kikuchi | Not Rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.


Popular Posts