The Devil All the Time is grim, unpleasant, and dreary, and yet. There is something satisfyingly enthralling about how fully every cast member here commits to the narrative’s harshness, and to its pervasive argument that every authority figure you can think of—cops, priests, crime bosses—gives zero fucks about you. Power works to maintain power, and it will use whatever tools available to it to do so. Faith. Authority. Fear. It’s a relentless grind, and although The Devil All the Time isn’t an enjoyable watch, the way it meets brutality with brutality is its own kind of thrill.
An adaptation of the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who also provides the film’s narration, The Devil All the Time is another difficult offering from filmmaker Antonio Campos. (Neither Simon Killer nor Christine was an easy watch, so at least Campos is consistent.) Jumping around in time over 20 years, from World War II to the mid-1960s, the film follows a few specific characters and then examines how their circles expand outward. Their parents and their children, their chance encounters with strangers, their friction with neighbors. The focus here is small Southern and Midwestern towns, and the small-mindedness of the people living within them; Campos is particularly interested in the concept of home, and the malleability of it. How much does the trauma of a place follow you, even if you leave it? What seeps into your bones, and what boils your blood?
The film, which divides its time between Coal Creek, West Virginia, and Knockemstiff, Ohio, begins in the latter in 1957, where WWII veteran Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) settles with his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) in a rented home on the top of a hill, with woods behind it. For nine years they’ve lived there, and they’re still the outsiders in a place where everyone else is “connected by blood, by one godforsaken calamity or another,” and their son Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) is still regularly beaten up by his classmates. The Russells have never been accepted in this place, and things only get worse when one member of the small family gets sick.
Years later, the now-teenage Arvin (Tom Holland) goes to live with his grandmother Emma Russell (Kristin Griffith), his uncle Earskell (David Atkinson), and his stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen, of Sharp Objects) in Coal Creek. The towns are 10 hours apart, but they’re not dissimilar. The communities are insular. Arvin and Lenora are still mocked. There is a rigid classism in place, a social hierarchy that makes Emma desperately ashamed of the family’s poverty, and the only thing everyone seems to do together, no matter their monetary status, is attend church.
Is the house of God, though, really the sanctuary that it promises to be? Arvin is utterly disinterested, disturbed by his father’s increasingly violent interpretation of Christian faith when Arvin was a child. Lenora is the real believer, and she is enthralled by their town’s new pastor: the young, handsome, and well-dressed Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson, getting weird here as in The King). With his frilly shirts, silk pocket square, and wayward lock of hair that begs to be pushed back, Preston sparks a feeling in Lenora of which she didn’t know she was capable. And just as Willard meeting Charlotte by chance in a diner set them both on a path from which they couldn’t deviate, so too does Preston and Lenora’s connection inspire another series of events that feel grand, weighty—practically fated.
So much of The Devil All the Time feels that way: as if characters’ destinies are already written and their choices are already made. Some of that is from the narration, which moves around in time, telling us about a character’s future or past before we’ve seen it for ourselves; some of it is from the fetishistic way certain objects are treated (a camera, a German Luger gun, a box full of poisonous spiders, a whitewashed cross nailed into a makeshift altar in the woods); and some of it is from the narrative itself, which tells us, over and over, that legacies are circular. Arvin is devastated by his father’s choices, and then remakes some of them. Lenora commits to the same mistake as her mother. To say too much about the characters played by Sebastian Stan (of Endings, Beginnings), Jason Clarke (of Serenity), and Riley Keough (of Under the Silver Lake) would spoil a major element of the narrative, but they too are trapped in their own dance of depravity, and seem unable to break away from it. The Devil All the Time is making an argument about misplacing your trust in institutions that don’t care for it, and also about the foolishness of believing that trust will help you undo the impossible. Does praying more save you? Does trusting the police save you? Does trusting the people you choose to love save you? Or, amid so much corruption and immorality, do we only have ourselves?
This is a sprawling cast, some of whom do better than others. Holland and Scanlen are quite good together, with the former giving us a more mature side than his Spider-Man performance and the latter doing a 180-degree turn from her wild child work on Gillian Flynn’s HBO series. Keough well communicates a woman whose lust for danger cools over time, but who doesn’t know how to take back the awful things she’s done. And it’s difficult to determine whether Stan and Pattinson are meeting their gonzo characters right where they need to be, or if their show-offy preening is distracting—I think it is, somehow, both? The way Pattinson drawls out the word “delusions” into an expression far longer than its three syllables is quite impressive! And although Stan’s and Pattinson’s characters don’t interact in the film, they are bonded by the kind of ego that a once-desirable man clings onto even as his looks begin to fail him, and by the innate privilege that handsomeness brings. There is a shared sort of white-man exceptionalism in how they each lead with their paunches, slump into sexual positions, and are utterly disinterested in the women they have sex with after the act is done, and it’s no coincidence that these gross men are the film’s representatives of justice and religion.
Where there are predators, there are victims, and yes, The Devil All the Time is full of them. Cinematographer Lol Crawley shot on 35-mm film, and the graininess fits the vibe. Some of the film’s most unforgettable scenes are those of haunting violence: a woman stabbed in the neck, bleeding out under a canopy of treetops; a body skinned and crucified, covered in flies; a horrific scene of animal abuse; a man, his genitals mutilated, begging for his life. It’s not light stuff! It’s all pretty dark! But I must confess that I appreciated how much Campos dug in his heels, how much he reiterates time and time again that the world is full of awfulness—both intimate, and random—and that the only thing we can do is protect the ones we love however we can. “There’s a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there,” is how Willard describes the world to a young Arvin, and the saying sticks. And, frankly, he’s not wrong.
The Devil All the Time is available for streaming on Netflix as of Sept. 16, 2020.
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