Amongst a typically raucous lineup at this year’s Venice Film Festival comes Evil Does Not Exist, a work in which tensions rise over little more than the placement of a septic tank. It’s the latest from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi and his first since 2021’s miraculous double-punch of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car. Evil concerns a clash of urban and rural sensibilities: a story about a small but hardy group of people who wish to stop the development of a glamping site. Devotees of Kelly Reichardt’s sylvan melancholies will feel perfectly at home.

A quiet, funny, confounding mystery, Evil plays out amongst the forests and streams of a remote village close to Tokyo. Tensions are raised when two representatives for the glamping company, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), arrive to talk things over. The locals, in particular a man named Takumi (a tightly wound performance by Hitoshi Omika, a star of Fortune and Fantasy), voice their concerns about how it might affect the town’s drinking water. The proprietor of a noodle restaurant wonders if her Udon will taste the same. “Everything that happens upstream,” an older man sagely explains, “affects what happens downstream.” When the reps’ attempts to dissuade anxieties fail, they decide to meet with Takumi to hash it out.

Hamaguchi developed this film with Eiko Ishibashi, the composer who scored Drive My Car. That collaboration began as a live performance; only afterwards did Hamaguchi develop its images into Evil Does Not Exist. Ishibashi’s music takes a central role: a recurring, persuasive string piece in the style of Max Richter that works easily with Hamaguchi’s overtures of intrigue and melodrama. Takumi emerges at the very beginning as the chief protagonist. We see him chopping wood and collecting water for neighbors; and Omika is wonderful in these solitary moments, suggesting years of hard-won self-sufficiency through the simple way he loads the gallons onto a pickup.

Fans of Hamaguchi might also recognize Shibutani from her small role in the director’s Happy Hour. As Mayuzumi, the actress gets a bigger slice of this film, including a very enjoyable conversation about dating apps while seated in the passenger seat of Takahashi’s car. Opposite her, Kosaka plays Takahashi as the hapless trier and gets to front Evil‘s best scene: a single static take in which Takumi calmly chops wood, with Takahashi arriving and asking if he can have a go. DP Yoshio Kitagawa (another Happy Hour alum) captures the area’s natural beauty with such grace one begins to worry about all the tourists it might counterintuitively draw.

Another key role is Takumi’s daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), who roams about the area with the kind of independence that a director tends to show when they wish to raise an audience’s concern. Everything builds to a shocking finale that I am still digesting and of which I have no intentions of revealing a single frame. Best, as always, to experience it for yourself.

Evil Does Not Exist premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will open in the United States from Janus Films and Sideshow.

Grade: B+

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