Starring: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgård, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska
OUR RATING: ★★★½
Netflix’s thriller drama directed and co-written by Antonio Campos. Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, the story follows a set of characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s, including Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a tormented veteran, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), a lecherous preacher, Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), a serial-killing couple, and Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), a corrupt sheriff. And caught in the middle of all this is Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), Willard’s orphaned son, who grows up to be a good but violent man in his own right, who will do everything he can to protect the ones he love against sinister characters.
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Narrator: Now, if you asked most people where Knockemstiff, Ohio, or Coal Creek, West Virginia were, they probably couldn’t point them out to you on a map. But I guarantee, they’d be there all the same. How and why so many people from those two piddling places on that map could end up connected has a lot to do with our story. Some would claim it was just dumb luck, while others might swear it was God’s intention. But I’d say with the way things turned out, it was a little bit of both.
Narrator: Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood by one godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust, or necessity, or just plain ignorance.
Narrator: Years ago, Willard had fitted together a weathered cross above a fallen tree in a small clearing behind his house. He came every morning and evening to talk to God. It seemed to his son that his father fought the Devil all the time.
[as Carl offers his seat to Willard at the diner] Narrator: Right before Willard fell in love, the man whose seat he took would also meet his match.
[as Sandy serves Carl at the diner] Sandy Henderson: You take pictures? Carl Henderson: Only when I find a smile pretty enough to photograph, that is.
Narrator: In the years to come, Carl would call Sandy “the bait”, and she’d called him “the shooter”. Both called their victims “the models”.
[as Willard sees Charlotte giving food to the homeless man outside the diner] Willard Russell: That was nice, what you did. Charlotte Russell: Some people just need a little help once in a while. You know what I mean? Willard Russell: Yep.
[as Willard gives Earskell a gun] Willard Russell: Now, this here is supposed to be the gun that Hitler used to blow his brains out. Earskell: You still got the bulls**t in you, ain’t you? Willard Russell: You think that guy lied to me? Earskell: [chuckles] Yeah. That is a nice gift though.
[after he returns home, referring to Charlotte] Willard Russell: I’m in love. Emma: What’s this girl’s name? Willard Russell: Well, I ain’t never got her name. [Earskell laughs] Emma: Earskell. You ain’t got her name? Willard Russell: I left her a dollar tip, though. Earskell: A what? Emma: For a cup of coffee? Earskell: Well, she won’t forget that.
Narrator: Willard didn’t know that Emma had promised God, that in exchange for bringing him home safe, she’d make sure he married Helen Hatton. The girl’s family had burned up in a house fire leaving the poor thing all alone.
Roy Laferty: [preaching] What is it you’re most afraid of? Hmm? Because if your worst fear is rats, well, Satan will make sure you get your fill of them. Brothers and sisters, you’ll see them, eating away at you whilst you lay there unable to lift a single finger. And it won’t ever cease. A million years in eternity. Now, don’t even try and figure that up. Ain’t no human head big enough to calculate misery like that! Yeah? And really, brothers and sisters, ain’t no man ever been evil enough, not even that Hitler fella, come up with the ways Satan’s going to make them sinners pay come the Judgment Day!
[as empties a jar of spiders onto his face] Roy Laferty: Mark my word, people! The Spirit will take away your fears if you’re willing!
Narrator: Emma was concerned that something bad might happen if she couldn’t keep her promise to God. Helen did, in fact, meet the man she would marry that afternoon. And Willard’s mind was already hundreds of miles away.
Narrator: Though he hadn’t talked to God in years, not a single petition or word of praise since he’d come across the crucified Marine. Willard could feel it welling up inside him now, the urge to get right with his maker, before something bad happened to his family.
[after Willard and Charlotte and their young baby son move to their new house] Willard Russell: Things are good, mama. We found a place in a holler called Knockemstiff. Arvin just turned one, and he has lots of grass to play on now. We’re saving money to buy the house one day. So things are going to be tight for a while. We’ll get to you as soon as possible. Your son, Willard. P.S. I got the urge to pray again.
Narrator: In 1957, Arvin Eugene Russell was nine years-old. He was the only kid on the school bus who wasn’t somebody’s relation. Three days before, he’d come home with another black eye.
[as Willard takes young Arvin to his prayer log] Willard Russell: Them boys might be bigger than you. But the next time one of them starts his s**t, I want you to finish it. You understand? Young Arvin: Yes, sir. Willard Russell: Now, you pray on what happened today. And remember, be honest, no bulls**tting. He’ll know.
[after Willard beats up the poachers] Willard Russell: Now you remember what I told you? About them boys on the bus that gave you the black eye? That’s what I meant. Just got to pick the right time. Young Arvin: Yes, sir.
Willard Russell: There’s a lot of no good sons of b**ches out there. Young Arvin: More than a hundred? Willard Russell: [chuckles] Yeah, at least that many.
Narrator: Arvin would often think back on this day as the best one he ever spent with his father.
[to young Arvin, after they find out Charlotte has cancer] Willard Russell: Now, them doctors can’t do your mom any good. But He can save her. Yeah, if we just pray hard enough. The Lord can do anything, if you just ask him right. Okay? Now hold them tight. And pray like you mean it.
[referring to Willard, who is clearly suffering as Charlotte’s cancer gets worse] Narrator: It occurred to him that maybe something more was expected than just his prayers and sincerity. God had a tendency of asking men to make sacrifices in order to prove their faith.
[after Willard kills their dog to offer as a sacrifice] Willard Russell: Lord, this here is my boy’s dog. We loved him. He loved him. Now you take him! Young Arvin: [crying] Bring him back! Willard Russell: You save Charlotte! It’s going to be alright, Arvin. It’s going to be alright.
[after young Arvin finds Willard’s dead body at their prayer log] Lee Bodecker: Well, this better not be one of them goddamn window peepers you keep calling about. Hank: I wish it was. It’s about this boy’s daddy. Lee Bodecker: Well, what is it, son? Young Arvin: He’s dead. Hank: And they buried his poor mama today. It’s a damn shame, it is. Lee Bodecker: Is that blood on your face? Young Arvin: No. Somebody left us a pie.
[as young Arvin takes Bodecker to the prayer log to show him Willard’s body] Lee Bodecker: What the hell is this? Young Arvin: It’s a prayer log. Lee Bodecker: Prayer log? Young Arvin: Yeah. But it don’t work too good.
Narrator: Roy had been bitten on the cheek by a spider while preaching a sermon, and his head had puffed up as big as a pumpkin. In the time it took the swelling to go down, he’d become convinced that the Lord was testing him to see if he was ready to take on something bigger. He’d stayed in the dark closet for a fortnight waiting on an answer. He smelled worse than a truck-stop s**tter.
[after he stabs Helen in the neck, killing her] Roy Laferty: God, I’ve heard your word. Helen, I resurrect you with the grace of God in me. I resurrect you! Return! God! It is time! Resurrect! Return!
Roy Laferty: I could tell the police what happened. That it was an accident. Theodore: You stabbed your wife in the neck with a screwdriver. Tried to bring her back from the dead, and then buried her body. That ain’t an accident, Roy. That sounds like a crazy person who killed his wife.
[we see Roy has hitched a ride with Carl and Sandy] Roy Laferty: Mister, I do appreciate this. Carl Henderson: I don’t understand people that won’t pick up strangers. It should be a good thing, helping someone out. Roy Laferty: You sound like a Christian. Sandy Henderson: Carl used to teach at Sunday school. Didn’t you, babe? Carl Henderson: That’s right.
Roy Laferty: What’s going on here, mister? Carl Henderson: Oh, come on. Jesus Christ, huh? Listen, pay attention. It’s like I said. Now, you’re going to f*** my wife, and I’m going to take some pictures, that’s all. Roy Laferty: Your wife? Carl Henderson: Come on. Roy Laferty: I’ve never heard of such a thing.
[as Roy refuses to do Carl and Sandy’s bidding] Narrator: Roy looked up at the clouds drifting by and wondered if that’s what death would be like, just floating away in the air. He preached on it for years, but still didn’t know what to expect. [Carl points his gun at Roy’s head] Roy Laferty: Just one thing. Carl Henderson: Yeah, what’s that? Roy Laferty: Her name is Lenora. Carl Henderson: What the f*** you talking about? Roy Laferty: My little girl. Lenora. [Carl shoots him]
[1965, at Arvin’s birthday Earskell gives him a box] Earskell: This was your daddy’s. [Arvin takes out a gun from the box] Emma: What’s that? Earskell: That’s Willard’s gun he gave me. I figure it’s time to pass it on. That’s a German Luger. Brought back from the war. I got no use for handguns myself. But I figure he’d want you to have it. Arvin Russell: It’s the best present I ever got. Thank you, Uncle Earskell. Earskell: Shotgun’s what’ll do you good. Arvin Russell: Maybe, but I don’t have anything else of his, so thank you. Emma: Time does pass.
Narrator: No matter what the weather was, Lenora would visit her mother’s grave after school. Some days she would even read the Bible out loud, and imagine her mother was listening. Though he wasn’t one for praying, Arvin would often drive her and keep her company.
[referring to Arvin trying to beat up the boys bullying Lenora] Lenora Laferty: It was a sight you didn’t end up in the hospital. Arvin Russell: Yeah, well, there’s a lot of no good sons of b**ches out there. Lenora Laferty: Well, Lord, Arvin, you’ve been saying that almost since the day I met you. Arvin Russell: You know, that’s because it’s true. Lenora Laferty: Well, maybe you should try praying for them then. Would that hurt none? Arvin Russell: You already do enough for all of us, and where’s it doing you much good, huh?
Lenora Laferty: Do you ever think about how we ended up orphans living in the same house? Arvin Russell: No. Besides, you might not even be an orphan. As far as everybody around here is concerned, your daddy’s probably still out there somewhere alive and kicking. F***, he might even come over that hill any day now, dancing a jig. Lenora Laferty: [chuckles] I hope so. I pray every day he will. Arvin Russell: Even if it means he did something? Lenora Laferty: I’ve already forgiven him. We could start over. Arvin Russell: That’s crazy. Lenora Laferty: No, it’s not.
Lenora Laferty: What about your father? Arvin Russell: What about him? I know what my daddy did. Lenora Laferty: Well, forgiving him, if he could come back. Arvin Russell: Well, shut your mouth. We both know that ain’t never going to happen. Lenora Laferty: I’m sorry for bringing it up.
[as Emma is cooking for the new preacher] Narrator: Emma was known as one of the best cooks in the county. When people praised her food, she always told them that she couldn’t fry an egg until she found the Lord. And that he was the one that guided her hand and made everything turn out good.
[as Emma, Arvin and Lenora meet Preston] Narrator: As Preston Teagardin swished the juice from the chicken livers around in his mouth, he felt the stirrings of a sermon coming on. Preston Teagardin: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
Narrator: Preston loved the way people listened to him and held onto every word. He was grateful his mother decided all those years ago that he was going to be a preacher. He’d never win a fist fight, but he could recite the Book of Revelation in his sleep.
[after Preston’s preaching insulted the food Emma brought him] Arvin Russell: Now, don’t you worry about that pus-gutted blowhard. I bet he ain’t got two nickels to rub together. Emma: I never been so embarrassed in all my life. I could’ve crawled right under the table. Arvin Russell: Alright, I’m going to go talk to him. Emma: No, Arvin! None of that.
Emma: He sure ain’t the preacher I was hoping for. Arvin Russell: Grandma, that ain’t no preacher. He’s as bad as they got on the damn radio. Heck, I bet he just wanted them chicken livers all for his own self. That’s why he did that. You see the way he was gobbling them down. Lenora Laferty: You shouldn’t talk like that, Arvin. Preacher Teagardin wouldn’t be here if the Lord hadn’t sent him.
[after Preston meets Lenora as she gets caught in the rain visiting her mother’s grave] Preston Teagardin: I was like you when I was your age. Full of the Lord. Some of them other kids just came down hard on me. Lenora Laferty: What did you do about it? Preston Teagardin: Well, it was a rough time. They was just jealous. Envy. Brings out the worst in people. Especially the young ones.
Narrator: Like his father years before, Arvin had always been careful about picking his time. He knew he’d stand a better chance if he didn’t try to take on all the dirty bastards at once.
Preston Teagardin: Have you shown yourself as the Lord made you? Lenora Laferty: You mean in my birthday suit? No. Preston Teagardin: No? Lenora Laferty: No. Preston Teagardin: To show yourself as the Lord made his first children, is to truly turn yourself to him, and his witnessing of it. Now, that’s courage itself. Lenora Laferty: Meaning I take off my clothes? Preston Teagardin: Come on and pray with me. Lord, Lenora is showing herself to you. See her, Lord, as you made her. She presents herself to you now. Give her the strength. [he takes off her clothes and kisses her] Preston Teagardin: We are together before the Lord. Amen.
Narrator: Like her mother years ago, Lenora felt the same force that drew Helen to Roy Laferty. The girl imagined that she could touch the love emanating from the preacher.
Lee Bodecker: Just leave off the horn until after the election, you understand? Sandy Henderson: Don’t act like you do nothing wrong. Lee Bodecker: I’m the law around here, little sister. And that makes all the difference.
Narrator: Bodecker believed people were like dogs. Once they start digging, they don’t want to stop. First, it would just be that the Sheriff had a whore for a sister, and after that, all the bribes and other s**t that had piled up since he’d first pinned on a badge. And if he wasn’t careful, eventually someone would find out about his own dealings with Leroy.
Leroy Brown: There’s debt you owe me. What I’m going to lose at the bar. Lee Bodecker: Horses**t. You ain’t losing nothing there. Leroy Brown: Yeah? And you know that because you’re a loaded diaper like everyone else who works for me, or because all of Meade knows you’re dirty? [he spits on the cash] Leroy Brown: That’s your weekly earnings until we’re square. Now, get the f*** out of my diner.
Sandy Henderson: Lord knows where a person who ain’t saved might end up. Gary Matthew Bryson: Right now it looks like Vietnam.
[after killing their latest victim, Gary] Sandy Henderson: I told you I don’t like this anymore. Ain’t it fair if I hate the way some of them cry? Carl Henderson: Well, not that you’d appreciate it, but tears make for a good photograph. Narrator: What Sandy didn’t understand, was that to his way of thinking, this was the one true religion. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.
Preston Teagardin: I’ve heard of cases in my reading about sin, where someone got so sick over some sin they felt they had committed that was so terrible that they started imagining things. Back, I read a story about people. Poor people. Barely able to write, thinking they’re the president, or a Hollywood celebrity, like Ava Gardner. Lenora Laferty: I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Preston Teagardin: The thing is, that’s the part of it. The book says, it’s not understanding. See, think about it. How could I be the daddy when all we done is spend time with the Lord?
Preston Teagardin: [preaching] The Lord’s delusion in the desert was a game of the so-called Devil. And what the Lord experienced was a delusion that would’ve kept him from saving us! But he did not fall for it! It is our delusions that lead us to sin. Striking a mother or a wife for something that you thought they said. Neglecting work or Sunday service, for that matter. Some girl gets a feeling for a fella and lets him have her holy gift. Delusions! Blaspheming the Lord in your mind and in your heart for some wrong done to you by another person.
Lenora Laferty: You’re saying you don’t remember all the things we did in your car? Preston Teagardin: I’m saying you must be crazy. Coming in the Lord’s house and talking all this trash. Look, my advice to you, girl, is you figure some way to get rid of it. Because otherwise, it’s going to be you, a whore mother, and her little bastard child running around, living in that poor old woman’s house who raised you. Now, if nothing else, think of her. She’ll die from the shame of it all.
[after Lenora changes her mind about killing herself, but accidentally hangs herself] Narrator: No one would know she wasn’t a suicide, and that in the end, she was alright with her maker. Emma: Oh, Lord. There’s just some things we can’t understand. But you take her into your arms.
[referring to Emma and Earskell after the coroner confirmed Lenora was pregnant] Narrator: Arvin wanted so much to be able to tell them goodbye, but they would be better off not knowing anything if the law came looking for him.
Arvin Russell: Dear Grandma, I’m writing to you because I cannot say goodbye to your face. I love you, and I will always remember the things that you have done for me. What I’m about to do, I do because I have to. Not because I want to. Please do not try and find me. Love, your grandson, Arvin.
Arvin Russell: Excuse me, Preacher. You got time for a sinner? I’ve been doing wrong, and I want to get right by the Lord. Preston Teagardin: Well, that’s what I’m here for. Arvin Russell: I’ve done lustful acts. Preston Teagardin: Yeah. That could be a big problem. Especially for the young people.
Preston Teagardin: What in the hell is this? [Arvin poins his gun at Preston] Preston Teagardin: You’ve been spying on me, boy? Arvin Russell: I’ve been watching your every move for the last couple weeks. You can’t get enough of that Reaster girl, can you? Is that how you did my Lenora too? Preston Teagardin: So, Mrs. Russell’s boy? Alright. Don’t do anything you’ll regret, son. Why don’t you put the gun down, and we can talk all about it. Arvin Russell: Go ahead and talk.
[referring to Lenora] Preston Teagardin: Lies. The lies. The lies are hers. She got it in her head that I was the father. That I was going to take care of everything. Goddammit, boy! Listen to me! I ain’t going to take the blame for no bastard child! It would ruin me, man. You can understand that, can’t you? Hell! Listen to me, boy. She was delusional. She was crazy. You see? Arvin Russell: No, she was just lonely. Preston Teagardin: No, man. [Arvin shoots Preston]
[after Arvin kills Preston] Narrator: He had to get away from this place, or any he ever called home. But in this moment, he felt a sudden force pulling him back towards Knockemstiff. No matter what else happened, he had to try to set right those things about his father that still ate at his heart.
BoBo McDaniels: You know, one thing I never can get is the scoops and water. Is it more water to scoops, or more scoops to water? [Bodecker then shoots him with his own gun]
[as the pick up Arvin hitchiking] Carl Henderson: We like picking up strangers along the way, don’t we? Meet new people, don’t we, hon? Sandy Henderson: Sure do.
[after Arvil kills Carl and Sandy] Narrator: Serial murderers aren’t the most trusting kind. Carl brought the additional quality of being maniacally paranoid. Sandy’s behavior before they left home made him uneasy, and Carl thought it’d be better if he was the only one with a loaded weapon. Poor Sandy never stood a chance. Her gun was loaded with blanks.
[as Bodecker burns all the negatives and photos of Carl and Sandy’s killings] Narrator: Reverend Roy Laferty, Durham, North Carolina. Though the poor f***er had been completely worthless as a model, Carl was insistent on keeping a record, of both his successes and his failures.
[after Arvil returns to see his parents home] Arvin Russell: I never did thank you for the night my dad died. You were awful kind of me, and I just want you to know that I ain’t never forgot it. Hank: You had that pie smeared all across your face. Damn Bodecker thought it was blood. Remember that? Arvin Russell: Yeah, I remember everything about that night. Hank: He ain’t the lawman that I expected.
Lee Bodecker: [to young Arvin] Some people were born just so they could be buried.
[as Arvin burries his dog’s bone at his father’s prayer log] Narrator: Arvin thought about the days leading up to his mother’s death, how Willard wanted so much for her to live. His father would have done anything to save her. F*** the blood and stink, the heat and the insects. Anything. Arvin said to himself. And suddenly he realized, standing in his father’s church, that he’d had no other choice, that Willard had needed to go wherever Charlotte went.
[after Bodecker finds Arvin at the prayer log in order to kill him] Arvin Russell: I’m not a bad person, Sheriff. That preacher weren’t no good! He hurt my sister so bad she killed herself, Sheriff! I had no choice! I hate to be the one to tell you this, Sheriff, but your sister, and her husband, they weren’t no good neither! I got a snapshot in my pocket here of her hugging on some dead guy. Look, you let loose that gun and I’ll show it to you! [Boderick shoots, at the same time Arvin shoots Boderick in the gut]
[after he shoots Bodecker] Narrator: Though it seemed to Arvin as if hours went by while he listened to the Sheriff fight to stay alive, it actually took the man only a few minutes to die.
[after Arvin catches a ride and listens to Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech on the radio] Narrator: Arvin didn’t want to fall asleep sitting next to a stranger, and as he fought hard to stay awake, his mind began taking him places. He started to think maybe the law would recognize he had done good. Maybe he’d be forgiven. Maybe he’d even be able to see Grandma and Uncle Earskell again. Or maybe that was too risky. But still, maybe he’d meet a girl, start a family like his daddy did.
Narrator: As the thoughts came, he wasn’t sure if he was going backwards or forwards. He knew wherever this was, it felt nicer than Knockemstiff. No fighting, or screaming, or pain. Then the thought of enlisting got into his brain. And he wasn’t sure if he was thinking about himself or Willard anymore. He didn’t want to end up in a war like his father. But he was good at fighting. Maybe that’s where he belonged. Grandma would tell him to pray on it, and he’d laugh at her. But maybe she knew something he didn’t. Right now, he needed sleep and just felt lucky someone was giving him a ride.
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