'The Evening Hour': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
An unsensationalized look at moral compromise in opioid-era Appalachia.

Braden King's second feature adapts Carter Sickels' novel about a small-town opioid dealer.

Is it possible to be a good-guy drug dealer? If your operation brings money to people who need it, and you're not exploiting desperate addicts? The Sacklers of the world may sleep well at night, but the protagonist of Braden King's The Evening Hour has to live among those whose lives are colored by the drugs he sells; even in the best scenario, any rationalization he constructs for what he does would seem unsustainable for long. Watching what happens when greedier friends upset his carefully balanced routine, King's film focuses on characters drawn from Carter Sickels' 2012 novel of the same name; while the time constraints of a feature only let him really develop that of Cole Freeman (Philip Ettinger), Cole's surroundings are drawn with enough credible detail to make this less a genre pic than a lament for one of the toughest places to be an American in recent years.

Cole works in a nursing home (and is a caring presence there), but would never stoop to stealing meds from the stockroom. Instead, he's like a one-man Meals on Wheels operation, partly correcting the harmful patterns of our health-care system. He stops in regularly to visit older townfolk who are still being prescribed opioids they don't need; he gives them cash (and makes sure they're doing okay), then ferries the pills to others who need them, whether it's to kill chronic pain or feed an addiction.

King and screenwriter Elizabeth Palmore may be cheating a bit in their depiction of Cole's clientele. We only meet one woman who's truly strung out, and we see his reluctance to deal with her. The film is quietly endorsing Cole's self-image: as a compassionate man who's helping people, not creating addiction or enabling self-destruction. When his girlfriend Charlotte (Stacy Martin) insists on getting high, he tells her, "I wish you'd stick to booze."

Cole sees himself as wholly different from Everett (Marc Menchaca), who fits the menacing-dealer stereotype perfectly, but the latter disagrees. Everett watches with condescending approval as the small-timer sells a few pills, telling Cole he's "teein' folks up" for the harder stuff Everett provides. Their equilibrium is upset when an old classmate of Cole's, Terry (Cosmo Jarvis), moves back home after getting into financial trouble. He's full of bad quick-cash schemes, all of which involve competing with Everett — and if he can't get Cole's help, he's going to at least run around town making it seem Cole is backing him.

This crime-drama plot runs alongside personal upheaval. Cole was raised by his grandparents after his mother Ruby (Lili Taylor) left town; Grandpa was the leader of a snake-handling Christian church, and reciting scripture from memory remains part of dinner-table conversations. When Ruby comes back to town, Cole's role in the family dynamic is as unsettled as his role in the drug trade.

Ettinger plays Cole as a man who doesn't yet understand he's having an identity crisis, but may soon be forced — by physical threats or emotional change — to move on from the place he knows. Supporting players including Tess Harper, Michael Trotter and Kerry Bishe convincingly help create the world, imperfect but comfortable, he'd be leaving if he goes — as does the source music on the soundtrack: not the kind of thing actual small-town people listen to, but the music urban sophisticates with rural roots seek out to nourish that part of themselves. The Evening Hour resonates in much the same way.

Production companies: Secret Engine, Truckstop Media
Cast: Philip Ettinger, Stacy Martin, Cosmo Jarvis, Lili Taylor, Michael Trotter, Kerry Bishé, Marc Menchaca, Ross Partridge, Frank Hoyt Taylor, Tess Harper
Director: Braden King
Screenwriter: Elizabeth Palmore
Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Braden King, Derrick Tseng
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Debbie De Villa
Costume designer: Carisa Kelly
Editors: Andrew Hafitz, Joseph Krings
Composers: Michael Krassner, Tim Rutili, Boxhead Ensemble
Casting director: Allison Estrin
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Cinetic Media

114 minutes