IN A VIOLENT NATURE Brutally Upends Slasher Expectations

Chris Nash’s meditative massacre reflects upon the primal demands we place on horror films

Stills courtesy of IFC Films & Shudder.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a tribe of hapless twenty-somethings awaken an evil force while vacationing at a cabin in the woods, and are subsequently dispatched in increasingly gruesome ways by the silent, shambling killer. We immediately conjure up icons like Friday the 13th’s Jason, along with Halloween’s Michael, the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface. Wild synths telegraph the terror of maddeningly creative kills, showcasing our killer’s fiendish ingenuity to turn surrounding objects into impromptu torture devices. It’s ghoulish fun–but its impact ends there, limited to the confines of our imagination.

Chris Nash’s astonishing debut feature In a Violent Nature strips away more than the flesh of its lead killer’s victims. During its spare ninety minutes, Nash eschews the frantic editing, bombastic score, and clear-cut empathy of traditional slasher films; in doing so, he obliterates what comfortable distance there is between his audience and the once-gleeful violence they’ve come to see. Nash’s camera, lensed by Pierce Derks, remains at a relentlessly roving, Elephant-like remove; like the best of Bela Tarr, the viewer follows the resurrected Johnny (Ry Barrett) as he inventively and wordlessly barrels his way through the supporting cast. Even the kills elevate beyond the films Violent Nature draws from–finding sickening new uses for draw hooks and automated log choppers, to name a few. Without the tropes of slasher films dictating or affirming how to enjoy a film like this, the brutality of In a Violent Nature hews uncomfortably close to reality.

Despite the film’s deconstructive desolation, Nash finds equal beauty in the bucolic forest Johnny calls home. Once the site of a company mining town whose workers led to Johnny’s demise (and, grimly, vice versa), Johnny’s woods are lovely, dark, and deep, thrumming with cicadas and lush greenery. The forest is also rampant with death—not just in the remains of the watchtower that serves as Johnny’s resting place, but also in the decaying animals caught in forgotten bear traps. Johnny, a revenant killer caught between life and death who only arises when provoked, has a decomposing form that feels as natural as it is supernatural. He is as much a part of the forest’s natural order as his fellow creatures.

In contrast, the loosely antagonistic forces against Johnny—these campers, a courageous park ranger, and even a belligerent country yokel—feel as invasive and benignly menacing as the bear traps littering the forest. Sure, the evilest act these teens commit is to steal the locket which awakens Johnny and his bloodthirsty curse; however, it’s an act the film puts on par with the placement of these instruments of death, one whose actions similarly lead to ironically grisly fates. This meticulous, meditative reversal subverts the expectations of a horror movie, especially a slasher film. It not only orients our sympathies towards the slasher at its core but also provokes us to reconsider the circumstantial victimhood of those who fall prey to the central villain.

The overall effect lands somewhere on a spectrum between the lingering beauty of Terrence Malick and the dispassionate terror of Michael Haneke, with the enchanting environmental beauty both at odds and wholly congruent with the gut-churning violence taking place within it. In one of the film’s most stunning sequences, the camera barely moves as it captures Johnny’s descent into a lake towards a swimming victim, who just as suddenly disappears–save for a brief, silenced scream–beneath the water. It’s a sequence that would normally be milked for all the Spielbergian tension it can muster, yet Nash’s deliberate lack of action beautifully contrasts the beauty of the lake’s stillness with the cruelty occurring beneath its depths, marking our complicity in bearing witness to every inseparable, excruciating moment. 

This conscious weaponization of our expectations for slasher films extends across all of In a Violent Nature‘s brutal sequences–the lingering description of a drag hook in a ranger museum, the inching approach of a log splitter’s blade towards an immobilized victim, even the haunting hesitance with which a character stops at the edge of a cliff despite Johnny’s rampant pursuit, as if debating which fate might be worse (avoiding spoilers, I would’ve chosen the cliff). By drawing out each moment and delaying what horror fans feel must be coming, Nash draws attention to just how active that audience’s craving for bloodlust truly is, keeping us on the hook just as much as the victims and perpetrators we’re watching. The resulting violence is primally unsettling as much as it is satisfying–because of how much we’ve been made aware of our complicity or advocation of such horrors.

But Nash has also noted his aversion to merely commenting on or taking a reductive approach to traditional slasher tropes, instead attempting to approach a familiar story in an untraditional way. In a Violent Nature particularly succeeds here not just in its formal approach, but also in its thematic concerns–paying close attention to the origins of its villain within a larger environmental history. Like the backstories of most slasher films, Nash camps Johnny’s original fate within campfire-story spookiness, recounting how he was murdered by loggers lashing out against the poverty inflicted upon them by Johnny’s magnate father. Given the detrimental history of the logging industry upon the environment, particularly in Nash’s native Ontario, I can’t help but focus on the delicious irony of Johnny falling victim to these forces of environmental evisceration, only to become a tool for the environment to lash out back against its tormentors. 

Conversely, In a Violent Nature doesn’t end with a smash to credits and a hint of a sequel, but a further patient meditation on the violence at its core. With the film’s lone survivor delivered to safety in the arms of fellow slasher film vet Lauren Taylor, audiences are given a conclusion more akin to No Country for Old Men than Taylor’s Friday the 13th Part 2, as her nameless woman reflects upon the nature of seemingly mindless animals driven to kill. Her sentiments land towards a definitive inherent incomprehensibility to nature–but Taylor’s woman grants nature a fearful, deferential respect precisely because of her limited point of view. Likewise, In a Violent Nature’s radical shift in perspective grants Johnny less of humanity and more of a patient understanding that other slasher films would deny in favor of gratuitous shock and terror. Johnny’s reasoning for his malicious tendencies is rooted in reasons that seem absurdly simple–but it’s still a reason that would otherwise be eclipsed by the screams of the teenagers slaughtered before us, one also born of its own violent history that occurred long before the events of the film. 

Rather than be content with an isolated smash-and-grab sense of horror, Nash’s wonderfully meditative horror film encourages viewers to recognize that such terrors rarely exist in a vacuum. Instead, there is an effective audience complicity to horror films that demands vital recognition, achieved only by a radical shift in expectation and worldview.

In a Violent Nature hits theaters on May 31, 2024 courtesy of IFC Films and Shudder.

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