In spanning several decades of time and virtually every human atrocity imaginable, Antonio Campos's adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock's novel The Devil All the Time certainly earns its title. A deep, dark dive into human depravity, corruption, and evil, the film leaves no stone unturned in dragging us through its admittedly well-photographed and paced slog of cyclical violence. Campos, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother Paulo, previously directed Christine (2016), a true-life drama about a television news reporter who committed suicide on-air, and a half-dozen episodes of the anthology television series The Sinner, which is described as a "series that examines how and why ordinary people commit brutal crimes." So-he is clearly fascinated by the darker side of life.
And there is darkness to spare in The Devil All the Time, which follows the intersecting lives of a half-dozen major characters living in and around rural southern Ohio and West Virginia in the years following World War II. We are first introduced to Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgrd), a young war veteran who witnessed all manner of atrocity on the battlefield, including a crucified soldier who he has to put out of his misery with a bullet to the head. He meets and falls in love with Charlotte (Haley Bennett), a decent young woman whose very decency suggests that she is doomed to an early demise. Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska), a simple local girl who Willard's deeply religious mother, Emma (Kristin Griffith), wanted him to marry, ends up marrying Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), a charismatic, but insidious and deranged preacher who becomes convinced that God has empowered him to raise the dead. Their daughter, Lenora, and Willard's son, Arvin, end up living with Emma and grow up to be teenagers played by Eliza Scanlen and Tom Holland. Arvin is deeply protective of Lenora, which is why he becomes enraged when she is sexually assaulted by Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), the smarmy new pastor who uses his place at the pulpit to seduce all the local girls. Oh, and did I mention that there is a pair of serial killers, Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), the latter of whom is the sister of the corrupt local sheriff (Sebastian Stan), who pick up young men and photograph their grisly demise?
All of these characters' lives interweave and intersect, sometimes passing by in parallel (such as Willard meeting Charlotte at the same diner at the same time that Carl meets Sandy) and sometimes in violent conflict. Violent conflict is the much more common theme, as all of the characters are either oppressors or victims, with those in the latter category sometimes turning into agents of vengeance and wrath, which is what best describes Arvin. Because he is played by Spider-Man's Tom Holland and because he seems to be the most decent, least twisted character on screen, it is hard not to be drawn to him, even though his violent retribution against the film's worst sinners is ultimately more stomach-churning than fist-pumping. Arvin appoints himself the role of vigilant, and you can't blame him because Campos constructs a world of such depravity and hopelessness that there isn't anything to do other than to load your gun (which, for Arvin, in a symbolic twist, is his daddy's weapon, a German Luger).
If the film had a bit more distance from its darkness, we might better appreciate its themes of how power corrupts, whether that be in religion, or law enforcement, or politics. The cyclical nature of violence dooms everyone on screen to bloodshed, and if you try really hard you might be able to draw out some kind of silver lining in the film's final moments, if only because all the worst people get what's coming to them. In that regard the film is a bit trite, although the cinematography by Lol Crawley (45 Years) and the detailed production design by Craig Lathrop (The Witch, The Lighthouse) immerses us to such a degree in the rural gothic muck that it feels more profound and Biblical in its wrath and its evocation of the wages of sin than it really is.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (2)
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