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The Unsettling Eco-Horror of Evil Does Not Exist

In Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new movie, an isolated community faces an existential threat and the fragility of its own defense mechanisms.


In 2019, the South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho remarked that the Oscars was a “very local” festival, before sweeping the proceedings in 2020 with his ferocious social thriller Parasite. It was a cutting joke on Hollywood solipsism that evidently drew blood from the thin skins of the academy’s more progressive wing; since Bong’s comments, five foreign-language films have been nominated for Best Picture, including The Zone of Interest and Anatomy of a Fall earlier this year. For those keeping score at home, that’s as many as in the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s put together.

The unlikeliest of these contenders—and also arguably the most beguiling—was probably Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, a three-hour drama that stormed the ceremony in 2022, propelled by a mix of savvy independent marketing, consensus critical acclaim, and old-fashioned word of mouth. Not that the movie was a traditional conversation piece: In a moment where most successful “transnational” cinema either embraces showy exoticism or genuflects to Western sensibilities, Hamaguchi’s stately, Chekhov-inflected meditation on the relationship between life, language, and art—centered on a theater troupe mounting an experimental, multilingual production of Uncle Vanya on the outskirts of Hiroshima—seemed an odd candidate for mainstream popularity, much less canonization. Still, something about the film’s gentle, metaphysical drift touched a nerve. By setting his film on a site haunted by unimaginable loss, Hamaguchi threw the shadow of history over his intimate study of individual grief; a coda filmed explicitly during the Covid-19 pandemic suggested an artist facing up to the realities—and anxieties—of the present.

With this in mind, Hamaguchi’s follow-up is a movie with one eye on the future—a steady gaze into an abyss of our own making. Evil Does Not Exist tells the story of an isolated community banding together to protect its way of life from invasion and commodification, and makes a study of not only the power of such existential threats, but the fragility of our defense mechanisms. Though one could argue that the film, with its elliptical tone and structure, is uncategorizable, there is a sense in which it is a horror movie, albeit one whose scares are more atmospheric than visual, and also one without monsters. The title alludes to this absence, though its reassurances nevertheless come to ring hollow as the true nature of the material becomes clear. And Nature is the operative word: If Evil Does Not Exist is indeed a work of horror filmmaking, it is, more specifically, a work of eco-horror, except that, instead of allegorizing (or spectacularizing) the end of the world as we know it, it subsumes it into a story whose smallness is at once decisive and deceptive.

In Hamaguchi’s hands, the old environmentalist saw “think global, act local” cuts two ways, both as a spur to activism and a rueful acknowledgment of some greater, more existential futility. It outlines plausible acts of resistance to the impending climate crisis, only to hint that they’re not nearly enough; without indulging in any dystopian imagery, the movie is apocalyptic around the edges. Hamaguchi’s sense of control is evident from the jump; in a carefully calculated—and entirely wordless—prologue, the camera tracks along the floor of a snowy forest, pointed toward the tactile, abstract canopy of branches hanging above. The movement is lulling and beautiful; after a while, we realize the point of view could easily be that of a funeral procession.

Meanwhile, the one human figure on display, Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), mostly keeps his eyes down as he chops firewood and collects spring water—tasks that we observe at an unobtrusive remove. His posture befits the mix of modesty and competence he displays as the area’s designated handyman, and yet for all his evident mastery, Takumi operates on a slightly uneasy frequency; something about him is pressurized, pent-up, and not even his after-school walks through the snow with his daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) seem to puncture his evident preoccupation. Even if Hamaguchi’s woods in Mizubiki, a village a few hours outside of Tokyo, are not overtly threatening, there’s something ominous about the frozen beauty on display, a feeling of just how easily these ancient rhythms—both of the landscape and of Takumi himself—could be disrupted, and what would be lost in the process.

To the extent that Evil Does Not Exist has a plot, it’s centered on elemental disruption: Early in the film, Mizubiki’s residents attend a meeting on an impending—and potentially lucrative—land development deal with a company called Playmode. The latter’s proposal is to transform the forest into a bucolic tourist trap catering to an incoming cohort of “glampers”—i.e., city folk looking for Instagrammably rustic, cost-effective excursions into the boonies. (“Glamorous camping” is a real phenomenon that experienced a worldwide boom during Covid; high-end resorts can be found in Poland, Iceland, and India.) “Your valuable input will be considered,” promises one of the underlings charged with converting the locals to Playmode’s cause during a town hall meeting—a patronizing promise that boomerangs back on its owner once it becomes clear that the company’s proposal hasn’t been thought through. Skepticism hardens into defiance: One resident’s weary, wary observation that “water flows downhill” mocks the concept of trickle-down economics as surely as it points toward the potential (and devastating) pollution that will flow to the locals.

No less than the ensemble rehearsal scenes in Drive My Car, the town hall meeting in Evil Does Not Exist is a miniature masterpiece of staging, camera direction, and ensemble action; following the ambient, dialogue-free lyricism of the opening passages, Hamaguchi shoots the summit, with its orderly but still head-spinning cacophony of viewpoints and voices, with the attentive intimacy of a great documentarian. The exchanges are funny and rousing, reminiscent in places of An Enemy of the People, which Hamaguchi denies was any sort of influence (“I did see a similarity once I read it,” he told Interview magazine, acknowledging a kinship with Ibsen’s style). “Balance is key,” Takumi says, staring a hole through the Playmode reps and their forlorn little PowerPoint presentation; the image of them squirming behind their MacBooks is supremely satisfying.

In another movie, the sequence could serve as a climax, or even a happy ending—a hymn to the tight-knit bonds of community holding fast in the face of late-capitalist raiders. But Hamaguchi isn’t interested in ever-after or easy answers, and the film continues with the narrative point of view (and sympathy) suddenly shifted to the demoralized Playmode reps as they head back to Tokyo for a debrief about their defeat. Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayazumi (Ayaka Shibutani) aren’t bad people, necessarily; nor are they oblivious to their roles as cogs within a machine. As they talk through their situation—and their personal lives—they develop from punch lines to fully dimensional protagonists; in an ironic and endearing twist, Takahashi finds himself charmed by small-town life and even considers relocating to Mizubiki permanently. Meanwhile, we find ourselves in the rare and slightly unsettling position of watching a movie whose immediate direction—and underlying meaning—both suddenly feel uncertain.

Such shape-shifting is Hamaguchi’s stock-in-trade: More than maybe any other working director, he possesses the skills—and sensibility—to engineer intricate ­storytelling structures and then dismantle them from within. The strange but real exhilaration of Drive My Car derived from how it deftly repeated certain visual and verbal motifs—like the elongated, hypnotic dialogue scenes set in the titular red Saab 900—only to eventually send its characters (and their desires) in new directions, while 2021’s excellent Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy unfolds as a trilogy whose chapters overlap at unexpected angles. The knowledge that Evil Does Not Exist was originally conceived as a 30-minute short film accompanying a suite of electronic music by singer-songwriter Eiko Ishibashi makes sense both in terms of the script’s unconventional arrangement and the way the film’s score—by turns atonal and melodic, skeletal and layered—seems not only to be commenting on but also to be dictating the action, especially in the homestretch, in which both the characters and their surrounding environment appear to be vibrating with anticipation.

It’s impossible to properly analyze—or levy judgment on—Evil Does Not Exist without saying something about its final act; the challenge in doing so is less a matter of spoiler alerts than trying to understand what, exactly, is going on. The confusion is entirely purposeful: The flip side to Hamaguchi’s unfussy stylistic sophistication is a fondness for enigmas that may trace back to his film school tutelage under the contemporary Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose thrillers derive suspense—and genuine terror—from their own inscrutability. When Kurosawa is at his best, as in serial-killer saga Cure or the ghost-in-the-machine creep-out of Pulse, he punctuates his airtight narratives with question marks, which could make his former student’s bewildering coda here an homage, or evidence of some unconscious influence.

Either way, the closing moments of Evil Does Not Exist have the uncanny abruptness of a nightmare; there’s a terrible swiftness to the action that makes us feel as if we must be missing something, or that some kind of definitive explanation will be forthcoming. That it isn’t can be taken as a statement of intent—and integrity—by a filmmaker willing to follow an extraordinary global breakthrough with a movie that ultimately keeps its audience at a measured, sinister distance. No matter how we react to Hamaguchi’s finale, he has us right where he wants us.