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Film Review: In Often Gripping “The Evening Hour,” Less Is More, Until It Isn’t

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 29th, 2021

Film poster: “The Evening Hour”

The Evening Hour (Braden King, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.

West Virginia is one of our nation’s current hotspots for opioid addiction, the region’s endemic povertycontributing to a culture of despair that causes some to slide into ever greater misery. Depression is an often inescapable mire, after all. Coal mining is still a major industry, though the riches (as long as they last) don’t seem to trickle down to average folks. Still, everyone has dreams, and in The Evening Hour, a new film from director Braden King (Here), we follow one such ambitious young man, Cole Freeman, as he tries to use the cards he has been dealt to escape the potential death spiral of a desolate life. Adapted by Elizabeth Palmore from Carter Sickels’ eponymous 2012 novel, the movie proves quietly evocative and powerfully effective in its depiction of time, place and character, even if individual narrative pieces traffic in cinematic clichés or don’t always quite gel.

Philip Ettinger (First Reformed) stars as Cole, a twentysomething healthcare worker at a local retirement community who moonlights on the side as a drug peddler. He mostly gathers his supply from locals with extra prescriptions or with more pills than they can handle (no one at work, though, as he holds that place sacred), co-existing in uneasy harmony with an older, more violent fellow dealer. Estranged from his mother (Lili Taylor, Paper Spiders), a former addict, he takes care of his grandmother (Tess Harper, The Long Shadow), as well as many others in the area (often in exchange for medication, but not always). He has a system, and is saving money for the future. All is good, until suddenly it isn’t.

Philip Ettinger in THE EVENING HOUR ©Strand Releasing

That change is precipitated by the return of an old high-school chum, Terry (Cosmo Jarvis, Nocturnal), who has just lost his job and needs a lifeline. When he finds out what Cole is up to, Terry decides he could do the same, though his friend wants nothing to do with either him or his plans. On top of it all, Cole’s preacher grandfather has just died, prompting mother Ruby’s return. When girlfriend Charlotte (Stacy Martin, Godard Mon Amour) starts hanging out with Terry (a former flame), that might just be a bridge too far. Something will have to give, and the beauty of the drama is that we’re never sure what that might be until the very end.

As gripping as that setup may sound, not all is smooth sailing, script-wise. Less is often more, in terms of dialogue, and the last thing anyone needs is excess exposition, but stuttering inchoateness, which is Cole’s particular affliction, has its own issues. Ettinger is a fine actor, but his motivations are often a little too opaque to fully resonate. There’s also a side plot with a sympathetic female bartender (Kerry Bishé, Rupture) that leads nowhere particularly meaningful, merely reminding us of weak story threads in an otherwise rich tapestry. And there’s the almost cinematically criminal neglect of both Taylor and Harper, both strong performers who cry out for more attention.

l-r: Philip Ettinger and Cosmo Jarvis in THE EVENING HOUR ©Strand Releasing

Nevertheless, what remains holds one’s interest, bolstered by excellent technical elements and a capable ensemble. The gritty texture of the shots and the muted colors of the palette plunge us into the rough, all-too-human stakes of the piece. Perhaps best of all, there is no full resolution, for the problems on display cannot be solved so easily. After the evening comes the night, and then another day. Escape is but the next step forward.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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