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A break from standard horror fare, “Reckoning” is a compelling story that will appeal to fans of slow-burn tension and character-driven narratives.

One of my favorite things about horror is how broad the genre is. While many people certainly have their own ideas about what qualifies as horror — a very specific kind of movie that comes to mind when the word is mentioned — the truth is that it can’t be easily boxed into a single objective definition.

Naturally, that causes some debate. You’ll find plenty of comments on titles in Shudder’s library by users claiming certain films are “not really horror,” even if they enjoyed them.

But horror isn’t measured in number of jump scares or gallons of blood, and sometimes a character-driven drama is still a horror film at heart.

That’s the case with Ruckus and Lane Skye’s 2019 film Reckoning, a suspenseful slice of regional gothic filmmaking.

The film recently made its Virginia premiere at the GenreBlast Film Festival, where I was lucky enough to screen it. Prior to that, it won Best Georgia Film at the Atlanta Film Festival.

Though it’s a world away from mainstream horror, its use of slow-build tension and sparse but effective grizzly imagery earn it a home under the wide horror umbrella.

In the Appalachian mountains, struggling farmer Lemon is left to care for her son, Coy, and their homestead alone while her husband Tarlee is off “galavanting.” This isn’t the first time he has wandered away from his family, but it’s clear from the onset that something is very different — and that this time he may not be coming back.

Tarlee owes a debt to the Runion family matriarch, Tommy, who owns the generator that powers his and Lemon’s farm and allows them to make a living. With Tarlee nowhere to be found, the debt falls onto Lemon’s shoulders, with dire consequences should she fail to pay up.

With her son’s life on the line, Lemon is determined to do what it takes to protect him. But she soon finds herself caught in the crossfire of a Hatfields-and-McCoys-style rivalry between Tommy’s ruthless Runion clan and the equally dangerous Knox family. Realizing she’s just a pawn in their game, Lemon has to play by their rules to save her son’s life and her own.

Reckoning is a story with a moral in the tradition of oral folktales told on back porches, passed down from one generation to the next.

Early in the film, Lemon tells Coy a similar kind of story about a little boy and two crows, the lesson of which she says is: “you do the work, you reap the rewards.” By the end of her journey she has learned the truth of that message, but also that it often isn’t that simple. It only works, as she says, “if the game ain’t rigged against you.”

The game Lemon is forced to play is undeniably rigged against her. The Runions and Knox’s are the most powerful families on their mountain, a law unto themselves, and Lemon is just a poor farmer dependent on Tommy’s resources to support her family.

There’s definitely a message here about the way those in power take advantage of the disenfranchised. Lemon is cast in the role of underdog, a determined heroine that viewers will root for as she attempts to dismantle a corrupt system.

Like any good regional horror, Reckoning doesn’t just reflect the natural landscape of a particular place.

It is most importantly a story about people. Well-written characters and powerful performances drive the narrative. Danielle Deadwyler shines as Lemon, displaying the incredible emotional depth and determination of her character as she struggles against Tommy’s schemes.

The two women may have wildly different sets of morals, but they are both mothers doing what they believe is best for their families. Tommy is a formidable antagonist who hides venom behind a veil of sweet smiles and Southern hospitality. She’ll say “bless your heart” and offer you a piece of pie while she stabs you in the back — literally.

The only weak spot in Reckoning’s narrative comes in the form of a cult living in an untamed corner of the forest. Even if this subplot were fleshed out enough to actually qualify as a subplot, I’m not sure it would fit any better in the overall story. What is meant to be creepy comes off as silly, and the single purpose the cult serves in moving the plot forward could easily have been replaced by something else.

This one minor hiccup doesn’t detract from the strength of the rest of the film.

Though it’s driven more by characters and less by action, the plot moves along at a solid pace. The storytelling feels natural, and the cinematography paints a startling picture of the Appalachian setting, a fitting backdrop to Lemon’s journey.

As she weaves her way through dense forests and across the mountainous landscape, as sense of isolation permeates each scene. It’s easy for the viewer to feel just as lost and alone as she does.

Reckoning might not appeal to fans who prefer their horror to jump out and grab them, but those who appreciate a slow-burn approach that’s heavier on complex characters than scares will want to keep it on their radar.

This film won’t keep you up at night, but it’s a story that will definitely stick with you.

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