NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Jeremy

1945 – In the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio lives Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard). As he brings his seven-year-old son Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) to his prayer log near their house, he recalls a memory that he cannot shake of his time in World War II as a Marine where he and other soldiers came across the body of Gunnery Sergeant Miller Jones, crucified by the Japanese and left to die but is still alive, albeit covered in blood and flies. Willard puts Jones out of his misery by shooting him in the head.

After the war, Willard returns home but first stops in the town of Meade where he goes to a diner and meets waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett), with whom he falls in love. Meanwhile, in the same location, waitress Sandy (Riley Keough) meets Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke). The narrator (Donald Ray Pollock) mentions that Carl and Sandy lured victims in to take photographs and then kill.

Willard later goes to church with his mother Emma (Kristin Griffith) where she tries to set him up with a woman named Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska), who recently lost her family in a fire, but Willard still has his eyes on Charlotte. The sermon is performed by Roy Laferty (Harry Melling) with his cousin Theodore (Pokey LaFarge), who dumps a box of spiders on his face to prove that he is protected by God. Helen later ends up meeting and marrying Roy, and they have a baby girl named Lenora. It is said that Helen’s body was found seven years later.

Willard finds Charlotte and they later get married, becoming parents to Arvin. When Arvin is nine, Willard tries to get him to practice his faith the way he does. He goes for a ride with his father and the family dog Jack and watches as Willard steps out of the truck to fight a bunch of guys, brutally pounding their faces in. Willard tells Arvin that he has to know when to pick his fights. The narrator says this is the best memory Arvin has of his father. They go home and find Charlotte collapsed on the floor.

Charlotte becomes sick with cancer. Willard brings Arvin to the prayer log to desperately ask God for Charlotte’s recovery. Willard even goes as far as to kill Jack and offer him up as a sacrifice so that Charlotte can be healed. It is in vain, as Charlotte dies soon after. In his grief and despair, Willard commits suicide and is found by the prayer log, alongside Jack’s rotting corpse. Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) arrives on the scene and takes Arvin away. Arvin is later taken to stay with his grandmother and Uncle Earskell (David Atkinson), who is already caring for Lenora (here played by Ever Eloise Landrum) after Helen left her in Emma’s hands.

A flashback shows that Roy had hidden himself in his closet after a spider bite to the face, leading to a crisis of faith. He emerged delusional and took Helen into the woods where he stabbed her in the neck with a screwdriver in the belief that he would be able to bring her back to life. Her last thoughts are of Lenora. Roy and Theodore flee, but Theodore wakes up in the car to find that Roy abandoned him. Roy is picked up by Carl and Sandy. They bring him out by a river where Carl orders Roy to have sex with Sandy and to take pictures. Realizing he is most likely a dead man with nothing left to lose anyway, Roy orders Carl to kill him, but not before he tells them Lenora’s name. Carl shoots him in the head and then takes his pictures.

Twelve years later, Arvin (now played by Tom Holland) is celebrating his birthday with Emma and Earskell, and his uncle gives him Willard’s Luger gun as a gift. The next day, Lenora (now played by Eliza Scanlen) is harassed by bullies Tommy Matson (Drew Starkey), Gene Dinwoodie (Zack Shires), and Orville Buckman (Ivan Hoey Jr) for her face and religious demeanor. Arvin attempts to fight the boys to defend Lenora, but they overpower and beat him down. Arvin remains a protective big brother to Lenora, and he goes with her to visit her mother’s grave. Lenora tries to encourage Arvin to pray more.

The family goes to church, where Emma brings chicken livers. They meet Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who crudely dips his fingers into the chicken livers to taste, and then calls out them out in a way to say the Russells are poorer than the others who brought better meat, leading to Arvin disliking Preston.

After picking Lenora up from school, Arvin drops her off while he goes to confront her bullies. He beats Tommy, Gene, and Orville in the garage they work in, ordering them to never bother Lenora again. Meanwhile, Lenora goes to Preston’s home to speak with him. He manages to seduce her and have sex with her.

In the last few years, Sandy has gotten tired of all the killing, leading her to begin to resent Carl. She is visited by Lee, who turns out to be her brother. He wants her and Carl to keep their killings low profile until after he is re-elected to another term as sheriff. After he leaves, he is seen taking care of business with a crime boss named Leroy (), who orders him to handle anything that will go against his business, since it also means less of a cut for Lee.

Carl and Sandy pick up Sergeant Gary Bryson (Jason Collett) and bring him out for a picnic before they mutilate and kill him and take pictures of his corpse alongside Sandy.

Lenora goes to Preston after learning she is pregnant. He tries to deny his involvement with her and suggests she get an abortion. Thinking that she will cause her family shame and disappointment, Lenora goes to the barn to hang herself. However, she has a change of heart, only to slip and be hung for real. Arvin finds her body and becomes distraught. He later learns from someone else that Lenora was pregnant, and he knows who to suspect.

Arvin follows Preston around and sees him trying to make moves on other young women. He leaves a note for Emma as he feels he cannot bring himself to say goodbye to her and that he will be going away. Arvin brings his Luger to the church and catches Preston alone. He brings up Lenora and causes Preston to jump to his feet. Although Preston tries to weasel his way out of it and call Lenora a liar, Arvin shoots and kills Preston before leaving evidence of his crimes on him and then fleeing to Knockemstiff.

Lee goes to Leroy’s home and kills him and his associate Bobo (Gregory Kelly). At the same time, Arvin is picked up by Carl and Sandy. After driving for some time, Carl prepares to make Arvin one of their next victims, but Arvin catches Carl’s gun first and shoots Carl before he can kill him. Sandy draws her gun, and after a brief standoff, Arvin shoots her in the neck, killing her. He continues to flee.

Lee learns of Carl and Sandy’s deaths and burns evidence of their crimes to protect his image for the re-election. He learns that Arvin is the prime suspect and goes looking for him once he arrives in Knockemstiff. Lee remembers Arvin from when he met him after Willard’s suicide. They find each other in the woods near Willard’s old prayer log, and Lee tries to hunt Arvin down. They engage in a standoff as well, and Arvin manages to shoot Lee first, leaving him to die. Arvin buries his father’s gun alongside what appears to be Jack’s skull.

Arvin is later picked up by a hippie on the way to Cincinnati, and as he starts to fall asleep, he reflects on the type of man he will continue to be.

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In the town of Knockemstiff are a bunch of shady and malicious characters, all connecting to young Arvin Eugene Russell.

Arvin's father Willard is a WWII Marine haunted by finding another soldier's remains, so he turned to God. He met a waitress named Charlotte and married her, becoming parents to Arvin. After Charlotte gets sick, Willard tries hard to keep his faith until she dies, and he commits suicide, leaving Arvin in the care of his grandmother Emma, who is also looking after a little girl named Lenora after her mother Helen was murdered by her husband Roy in the belief that he could bring her back to life with God's help. Roy is killed by serial killer couple Carl and Sandy Henderson, who photograph their victims.

As a young man, Arvin is protective of Lenora, who falls to the seductions of Reverend Preston Teagardin. He impregnates her but tries to deny his involvement with her, leading Lenora to hang herself. Arvin goes after Preston after learning of her pregnancy and that he preys on other young women. Arvin kills Preston and flees the town.

Arvin comes across Carl and Sandy, who intend to make him their next victim, but he kills them both before that happens. The corrupt Sheriff Lee Bodecker, Sandy's brother, learns of their deaths and goes after Arvin to prevent him from exposing their crimes since it will hurt his chances of re-election. Lee finds Arvin but Arvin kills him first before continuing to flee to a new life.