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There is a calm implacability to “In a Violent Nature” that’s deeply unsettling and particularly unpleasant. Yet I was also transfixed: Chris Nash’s direction is so persuasively bold — brazen, really — and bloodcurdlingly coolheaded that his unusual shocker is impossible to dismiss.

Gathering routine genre elements — the masked predator, the luckless teenage victims, the cabin-in-the-woods setting — Nash subordinates them all to a mood of stunning serenity. In place of a shrieking, pounding soundtrack, there is only birdsong and crunching leaves as a hulking human shape known as Johnny (Ry Barrett) heaves itself from the earth and begins its leisurely rampage. Following behind, we see only what Johnny sees and hear what he hears, his appearance initially restricted to a scorched skull (at times encased in an ancient smoke helmet) and hands like raw meat.

Less a man than a near-mythic entity, Johnny is as relentless as the industrial log splitter that silences the courageous park ranger (Reece Presley) who tries to stop him. A spartan plot involving an abusive childhood and a stolen locket provides Johnny’s motivation, but “In a Violent Nature” is more partial to atmosphere than narrative. The stirring forest floor, the wind-riffled surface of a lake, snatches of indistinct conversations — these are the threads that bind one horrific kill to another.

Whether nauseatingly explicit or eerily suggestive, the murders shock less for their punishing particulars than for the dreamy languor with which they’re enacted and filmed. Johnny likes to take his time; and if his experiments are sometimes hard to watch, they are also at times uncommonly creative. Claiming inspiration (in the film’s press notes) from Terrence Malick and others, Nash has attempted an ambitious blend of art house and slaughterhouse whose rug-pulling ending will polarize, even as its moody logic prevails.

In a Violent Nature
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters.



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