A small town already down on its luck receives a few fresh kicks in “The Evening Hour.” Based on Carter Sickels’ 2012 novel, this second narrative feature from director Braden King is more plot-driven than his first, 2011’s “Here,” a leisurely and slight, if pleasant, road-trip romance. Indeed, there may be a little more content here than the film knows quite what to do with, given an opioid epidemic, related criminal intrigue and various problematic relationships crowded into a story that King prefers to let unfold somewhat passively when a more taut, suspenseful approach might seem more apt.
Still, this snapshot of life in a tapped-out Appalachian mining town holds the attention, even if it doesn’t quite maximize potential as either melodrama or character piece. In the current climate, its modest theatrical prospects will likely be outpaced by potential as a streaming item.
With his sunny disposition and natural inclination for caretaking, Cole Freeman (Philip Ettinger) is a valued aide at Dove County’s nursing home, where he alone seems able to coax senile residents out of their occasional panics and paranoias. But then, he’s also a helpmate to the grandparents (Tess Harper, Frank Hoyt Taylor) who raised him, as well as sundry elderly and needy clients around the area. Those last aren’t the beneficiaries of pure altruism, however: Along with gratis grocery delivering and handyman duties, Cole provides the odd envelope of cash in exchange for prescription meds they don’t use, but often get just for his benefit. He then turns around and illicitly sells those pills to locals.
It’s a modest drug trade he’s careful to keep well away from the town’s major-league dealer Everett (Marc Menchaca), a bad mofo more than willing to unleash his goon squad on anyone who encroaches on his territory. But that fragile balance is upset with the not-entirely-welcome return of Cole’s erstwhile high school bud Terry (Cosmo Jarvis), who’s slunk home after a long absence with a wife in tow, a debt load and delusions of drug-dealing grandeur — as well as the mistaken belief that he can somehow evade Everett’s eagle eye for competition.
Spurned by Cole when he offers to be “partners,” Terry is soon inviting serious trouble by talking big to his old pal’s customers, and anyone else who’ll listen. He adds insult to injury taking back up with former girlfriend Charlotte (Stacy Martin), a somewhat restless party girl — no matter that he’s married, or that she happens to be Cole’s girlfriend now. As the wrecking ball of Terry’s plans (which include starting a meth lab) wreaks general havoc, one bright spot is the return of another classmate, newly-single Lacy (Kerry Bishe). On the other hand, Cole isn’t quite sure whether the simultaneous boomeranging of his wanderin’ mother Ruby (Lili Taylor), lured repentantly home by the preacher grandpa’s funeral, is a good thing or not.
There are also quite a number of subsidiary characters, most notably Reese (Michael Trotter), a flamboyant fellow caregiver who’s both Cole’s client and friend. Elizabeth Palmore’s screenplay does a fair job juggling all these strands. But one gets the sense that a whole lot of backstory didn’t make the transition from novel to screen, leaving us to guess at too many key elements about individual characters and their relationships.
Such gaps might fly better in a film that caught an entire community’s battered spirit more convincingly than “The Evening Hour” does. But while the Kentucky locations, DP Declan Quinn’s attentiveness to landscape, strong design contributions and an atmospheric soundtrack all lend texture, this is the kind of movie whose variably familiar lead actors don’t attain the kind of collective regional authenticity this tale needs. There isn’t a bad performance among them, and there is some fine work — particularly from Jarvis, an English actor who nonetheless makes Terry seem a more convincingly damaged product of ebbing coal-country culture than anyone else here.
The story does pull one along, in part because we root for “First Reformed” actor Ettinger’s sweet-natured hero to make it through intact. However, given that the plot mechanics render prison or worse inevitable for some characters, it’s too bad “The Evening Hour” seems so disinterested in building suspense. Even an armed-and-dangerous climax that should be rife with pent-up tension isn’t staged or edited to that end.
Another recent indie that similarly dealt with an economically depressed, drug-addled community, “Inherit the Viper,” had its own shortcomings but at least accepted it was in large part a crime thriller. “Hour” is much more structured than King’s prior “Here,” which was loose enough to simply let its protagonists wander around scenic Armenia. But you get the sense he might ideally prefer just to photograph this story’s backdrops of natural beauty and industrial decay, when there’s an increasingly urgent, complex narrative that could have used his more attentive focus.