“Evil Does Not Exist” opens with a lengthy, unbroken shot of snow capped trees from below, an intimidating angle diminishing us against the leafless branches. Arresting, yet discordant strings from musician Eiko Ishibashi accompany the scene. The shot ends abruptly and we’re introduced to an eight-year-old Hana (Ryô Nishikawa), who is observing something in the forest. We then follow her father Takami (Hitoshi Omika) for an extended period, observing his routine: cutting logs for a fire and collecting spring water for his friends who own a ramen shop.

It’s tedious work, but the atypical tone of the opening persists through formal choices, keeping viewers testy. Cuts in score and image are done abruptly and camerawork switches frequently from graceful tracking to off-kilter handheld. There’s a constant feeling that something isn’t right.

The first instance of anything narratively awry happens when Takami learns that the remote forested town, Mizubiki, where he resides, will soon be home to a glamping site owned by Playmode, a talent agency hoping to stake a claim in the lucrative industry. The corporation sends down two employees, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) to ease anticipated tensions. And sure enough, tensions are high as the town bands together, pointing out the negligence of Playmode and the damage the hotel would have to the ecosystem, polluting water and disrupting deer paths. The two subordinates can only throw out empty assurances, promising to take up their complaints.

The stage is set for an expected divide between the natural world and capitalism — the small town and the corporation. The audience is compelled to cheer for every local’s personal testimony and smirk at the employee’s stupefied responses – or lack of one. But, writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi doesn’t let the dust settle here.

Takahashi and Mayuzumi then become the focus as they express genuine concern to their smarmy boss and their bonding over their dissatisfied careers and dating lives. Hamaguchi, who, in the past decade has proven to be a master of humaneness, demonstrates this once again. Yes, these people may be cogs in a wheel, but they are not callous like such a disposition would suggest. This empathy is why the two eventually ask to learn about the natural world from Takami, an expert in ecology.

Becoming enthused by Takami’s lifestyle after inexpertly chopping a log, Takahashi stated that he hasn’t felt this good in a long time and that he should stay in Mizubiki longer. The introduction of the two employees, specifically Takahashi, gives us a foothold in the film, with the narrative still remaining at a distance from an absolute reading. Takahashi’s sudden fascination mirrors that of the business he promotes. Sure, it’s fun and a change of pace from his city life, but for people like Takami, it’s just life.

Takami is a man who only takes what he needs from nature. His daughter has a different relationship to nature, characterized by wide-eyed fascination. The characters’ relationship to the natural world is all inherently acts of receiving, but one out of self-satisfaction, one out of necessity and one out of appreciation. The three motives never explicitly butt heads, but they rather exist as a matter of fact. With this, Hamaguchi conveys that no relation to nature is inherently evil.

The film’s final act, at once unsettling and existential, presents itself as an anomaly in relation to its constituents — the tonality becoming that of mystery. When we realize what has happened in the final scene, it’s easy to fault Hamaguchi, who has been carefully building a knife edge, into overworking his hand as he tries to reach for a more stirring, rather than befitting ending. Though there is some truth to that — it happens quite suddenly — en masse, it’s a reasonable choice.

Numerous traces of an imminent evil have been patiently planted by Hamaguchi (blood on thorns or dubious behavior from Takami), suggesting such a conclusion. The strength of the finale is, however, the interpretation it invites, which the film deserves to propose. Reflecting on the film’s title, the mystifying turn of events could signal the involvement of karmic forces beyond comprehension, or perhaps, and more simply, nature running its course.

Verdict: Telling a story about flora and fauna in jeopardy, “Evil Does Not Exist” is engrossing while evading easy interpretation.