Sprawling and brutal, The Devil All the Time is not for the impatient or the squeamish. Adapted rather faithfully from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name, Antonio Campos‘ star-studded Southern gothic tracks a group of sinners through time as they all mill about the unincorporated area known as Knockemstiff, Ohio, leaving a trail of death, sorrow, and regret in their wake. It can be an overwhelmingly bleak film, but there’s a glimmer of hope shining through all that darkness – the hope of escaping the insane world you find yourself stuck in.
The Devil All the Time is connected in time by father and son. The father is Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), who comes home from World War II and suddenly finds religion. It’s a fervent, dangerous religion, one that inspires the man to set up a rough cross in the woods behind his house and pray for hours. Willard falls for local waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett), and soon, the pair have a son, Arvin. The family seems happy, but things take a turn when Charlotte is stricken with cancer – a cancer Willard is convinced he can get God to take away, if only he and Arvin pray hard enough.
When Willard and Charlotte first meet, they very briefly cross-paths with Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough), a pair of budding serial killers who prowl the backroads in their car, looking for young hitchhiking men to pick up and murder, all so Carl can take photos of the act. He calls their victims his models. Meanwhile, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman Willard’s mother had hoped Willard would settle-down with instead of Charlotte, falls under the spell of traveling preacher Roy (Harry Melling), who is known to dump an entire bucket of live spiders on his face while delivering a sermon about how God took away his fear of all-things-arachnid.
Campos checks in with these characters over time, while a wry, dryly funny narrator comments on their inner workings. The narration – often condescending, going so far as to call one character a “sick fuck” after one heinous act – recalls the darkly funny narration of Barry Lyndon, used to both entertain us and also help us keep track of the ever-changing, ever-growing story.
Years later, Arvin is grown and played by Tom Holland. This young man version of Arvin is quiet and haunted by traumatic his past, and also prone to fits of violence, especially when he sees people mocking and bullying his adoptive sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen, who really has the market cornered right now on playing pale, melancholy girls who are lightning rods for tragedy). It’s clear that Arvin has deep feelings for Lenora, and things get complicated when a new preacher, Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), rolls into town and catches Lenora’s eye. And even now, the husband-and-wife serial-killer team of Carl and Sandy are still out there, able to get away with their crimes because Sandy’s brother is the local (corrupt) sheriff, played by Sebastian Stan in a relatively small role.
Pattinson is clearly having a blast, giving one of the weirdest damn performances of his career. I can’t even begin to tell you what accent the actor is going for here, but it doesn’t even sound like it’s from this planet, let alone this country. The actor doesn’t show up until very late in the film, and it’s almost as if he decided to make up for lost time by devouring every scene he’s in. The performance might be a bit too much for some, but I thought it fit the often surreal tone of the film perfectly. Or maybe I just like watching Pattinson ham it up.
Holland, sadly, doesn’t impress as much. He’s our default lead, even though he, too, doesn’t show up until later in the narrative. And while his accent work is much better, he seems uncomfortable in the part. Part of that discomfort is built into the character, but you also get the distinct impression that Holland – who is a good actor, no doubt – just isn’t right for this role. He seems too fresh, too clean to play such a haunted, violent character.
The theme binding all of these characters together is faith and religion. The devout among the group are very devout – dangerously so, to the point where such faith can have terrible, bloody consequences. And those who aren’t devout are able to manipulate those who are to their needs, such as the way Teagardin manipulates poor Lenora into being his underage paramour. The results are often terribly cruel, with Campos refusing to flinch away from the pain and suffering these characters endure.
That’s not to say The Devil All the Time is a dour slog. Despite the darker-than-dark subject matter, the film is often quite funny – albeit in a bleak, gallows humor way. The subplot involving the serial killers is morbidly comedic at times, and Clarke and Keough play it up perfectly, with Keough playing Sandy as a bit of an airhead while Clarke really leans into how disgusting Carl can be.
And beneath all that blood and grim is a sense of hope. Not religious deliverance, or acceptance. But rather escape. Escape from small-minded towns and pasts bogged-down with trauma and pain. If only these characters could just get away; light out for the territory and never look back. That light at the tunnel appears to always be teasing our characters, particularly Arvin, who seems like the type of person who could be saved – and safe – if he just got away from all of these sweaty, violent, hateful individuals who scream about things they don’t understand or really believe in. That’s something I think a lot of us can relate to right now, and it makes The Devil All the Time feel like a movie tailor-made for the current hellscape we’re all trapped in.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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