‘In a Violent Nature’ Sundance 2024 Review: Ripping Up the Slasher and Showing Its Guts
As Johnny Ramone wrote in his 2012 autobiography, Commando, about his band, the Ramones: “We got tagged as being a ‘three-chord band’ early on by critics who didn’t know how else to put us down. But most Ramones songs, even to the end, had more than three chords.” If punk music, as the Ramones represented it, is the most recognizable form of rock n’ roll, then the slasher film is the horror movie equivalent. To wit: it’s the type of movie the average person thinks about first when the term “horror movie” is invoked, and, as Johnny Ramone said, it’s the subgenre many critics tend to put down as being simplistic and repetitive.
Like punk music, however, the slasher is remarkably resilient, and that’s thanks in large part to its malleability: no two films (even in the same franchise) are exactly the same. The core structure of the slasher gives filmmakers the freedom to add little jazz-like flourishes that, within the subgenre, absolutely qualify as innovation.
As if seeking to prove this point, along comes writer/director Chris Nash with In a Violent Nature, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past week and will be exclusively streaming on Shudder sometime in the spring. Nash’s film is brutal, melancholy, contemplative, eerie, and— yes—innovative, staying well within the slasher margins when it comes to tropes, structure, and narrative. However, he’s coloring inside those lines in thrillingly new ways. While the movie is Nash’s first full-length feature as a director, he’s made a handful of shorts and supervised the creature effects department on 2020’s Psycho Goreman. As such, he brings a blend of first-time indie director and bonafide horror veteran to the movie, resulting in the film’s compelling dual identity of classic, throwback slasher, and experimental debut.
If you’ve heard anything about In a Violent Nature already, it’s probably that the film is a POV slasher from the killer’s perspective. This is not only inaccurate, it’s a little irresponsible, as it further confuses what the term “Point Of View” means (thanks, social media) while inadequately preparing audiences for where Nash ends up taking the movie. (If a new film premiering at this year’s Sundance shot from the actual POV of a horror creature is what you’re after, may I happily recommend Steven Soderbergh’s Presence?)
More precisely, In a Violent Nature follows (but does not see the world through the eyes of) Johnny (Ry Barrett), who was wronged as a boy and, now in the form of a hulking man-thing, is literally brought up from his resting place beneath the ruins of a fire tower in the woods when his mother’s necklace, which he vowed to his father that he’d keep safe, is taken by a careless teenage dude who’s camping with his friends in a nearby cabin. Right away, Nash is drawing clear parallels with and homages to the Friday the 13th series. Everything from Johnny’s appearance, his non-verbal nature, his imaginative kill style, and even his gait and resting stance (Barrett has clearly studied Kane Hodder’s signature heavy breathing) evokes Jason Voorhees.
Yet while Friday the 13th is undeniably this film’s touchstone, Nash drops in a good smattering of other classic woodsy slashers. We’re introduced to our Final Girl, Kris (Andrea Pavlovic), her friends, and Johnny’s backstory via a campfire sequence that’s highly reminiscent of Madman, and the mixture of cinematographer Pierce Derks’ Academy ratio shots of bucolic Canadian wilderness with horrific, practical effects gore recalls both Just Before Dawn and The Prey.
For the most part, Nash plays more than fair with the slasher trappings, so much so that he allows his camera, his killer, and the film’s soundtrack to wander around rather than pick up every single detail of plot and character. That’s because, of course, it’s unnecessary. By this point in slasher movie history, the rules have become so underlined in bold that we only need the bare minimum to understand what’s happening at any given moment, with everything from the teens’ discovery of their friend’s bodies to love triangle drama happening just offscreen.
What’s onscreen instead is a portrait of the killer’s abject loneliness combined with the slasher film’s inherent sense of dreadful inevitability. In a Q&A conducted after the movie’s Sundance premiere, Nash exclaimed how he intended In a Violent Nature to feel like a “Part Two or Four” of Johnny’s franchise, eschewing the necessity of explaining too much of Johnny’s backstory while allowing proceedings to get going as soon as possible.
With the film’s methodical, almost Terrence Malick-meets-Gus Van Sant pace (the latter being a definite influence, according to Nash), this ethos makes Johnny’s long trek through the woods to reclaim his mother’s necklace and make a horrific corpse out of anyone in his path seem melancholic, the killer stirred to action in a Sisyphusian way, if Sisyphus were an undead murderer.
That pace and tone pervade the film, making it sufficiently eerie—the film is surrounded by sound design, as there is pointedly no score—and provocative when it comes to the kills. Nash has a bit of Van Sant/Von Trier/Haneke gadfly in him, placing his camera in static setups with long takes, implicitly asking the audience “Are you sure you want to see this?” even if the answer is “yes,” as he knows it is. Unlike the Scream franchise and its ilk, which seeks to tear down and rebuild the slasher in order to discover its place in cinema and society, In a Violent Nature rips open the slasher movie and shows its guts to itself. It doesn’t provide any commentary; it just lets the view invite contemplation.
The cumulative effect of all this is a movie that is both a blast and a meditative deconstruction, a threading of a needle that’s extremely difficult to pull off and, indeed, may turn off some, especially when Nash slightly breaks convention and doesn’t exactly provide the Final Girl/Killer showdown that all of those aforementioned slashers include. While climaxing on an ellipsis rather than an exclamation point may frustrate those who most appreciate the movie’s close-knit relationship to slasher tropes, those vibing with its askew perspective will have a lot to chew on as the credits roll, as Nash explores the psychological effects of all this brutality and threat of death on those left behind.
In the landscape of high-concept, post-post-modern slashers we’re living through these days—everything from David Gordon Green’s take on Halloween to It’s a Wonderful Knife — it’s refreshing to receive what feels like a back-to-basics, genuinely spooky, delightfully gory slasher that nonetheless contains a great deal of meta-commentary all its own. With In a Violent Nature, Nash pulls the same trick the Ramones do on their track “Judy Is A Punk,” providing a new verse that’s the same as the first and yet feels fresh and distinct in its repetition. In this way, the slasher movie, like its immortal villains and rock n’ roll itself, can never die.
In a Violent Nature is a consummate throwback slasher while being a clever meditation on fear and violence, replete with gory practical kills and an innovative pace and perspective.