Warning: This is your last chance to avoid major spoilers.
Okay, ready? Here goes: Nearly everyone dies. Aside from the main character of Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), all of the other major characters perish, mostly in gruesome ways and often at the hands of another character.
Antonio Campos' new film — which is based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock — is about several people in small towns in Ohio and West Virginia, who are all connected to one another. The story centers around Arvin, who we first meet as a nine-year-old (played by Michael Banks Repeta) living with his mom, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), and dad, Willard (Bill Skarsgård). His mother dies after being diagnosed with cancer, and his father kills himself. Arvin is then sent to live with his grandmother, Emma (Kristin Griffith), who has also taken in a young girl named Lenora (Ever Eloise Landrum), whose parents also died. (in two of the most disturbing deaths of the film, mind you).
To move things along to the end, after killing an evil reverend, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who pressures teenage Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) into sex, impregnates her, and then tells her she imagined it, Arvin hitchhikes his way out of town, but is picked up by Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough), a pair of serial killers. Realising what they're up to, Arvin kills them, and flees to his childhood hometown of Knockemstiff, Ohio. There, a sheriff (Sebastian Stan) — who is also Sandy's brother — hunts down Arvin for the murders, but Arvin is able to kill him, as well.
So, yes, Arvin kills four people, but he's still the most moral person in the movie — aside from his grandmother, who just wants to her fried chicken livers to be appreciated.
Needing to flee again, Arvin hitches a ride with a man with long hair (Teddy Cole). Given the film's religious themes, it's hard not to think he's meant to resemble the way Jesus is often depicted. But, he's also a hippie (and is credited as "Hippie"), so maybe he's a hint at a new life for Arvin, or at least a look at a wider world outside of Knockemstiff.
As Arvin and the man drive off, a radio news broadcast shares that president Lyndon B. Johnson is planning to up the number of troops sent to Vietnam. The report brings to mind the fact that Arvin did just kill four people for what he believed to be moral reasons, which is the same thing that happens in war. It's just viewed completely differently. There's also the fact that Arvin's father was in World War II, and a major theme in the story is trauma and fate being passed down through generations.
In addition to the news report, we also hear some final words as Pollock, who also serves as the film's narrator, reads some lines that explain Arvin's mental state. "As the thoughts came, he wasn’t sure if he was going backwards or forwards," Pollock explains. "He knew wherever this was, it felt nicer than Knockemstiff." We also hear how Arvin didn't want to fall asleep in the car with a stranger. How he wondered if "maybe the law would recognise he had done good" and he could be forgiven. (At this, we see clips that show evidence of Sandy, Carl, and Reverend Teagardin's wrongdoing being found by police.) How "maybe he’d meet a girl and start a family like his daddy did." How he was considering enlisting in the army. "He didn’t want to end up in a war like his father," Pollock reads. "But he was good at fighting."
The whole thing touches on the sometimes cyclical nature of family and of life. Willard left his small town, went to war, and fell in love, but could never escape the trauma he carried with him. It's possible that Arvin could break the cycle, but the narration makes it seem unlikely.
In fact, it almost seems like Arvin is already dead. If not in a literal sense — he does very narrowly survive death multiple times and hear what might be the barks of his dead dog, so I'm willing to hear it as a theory — then in an emotional sense. He doesn't know if he's going backwards or forwards, if he's at the beginning or the end, if he's himself or his father. The movie's tagline is "Everyone ends up in the same damn place." That doesn't just mean their hometown.