The sins of the father are passed down with both a solemn hand and a diabolical chuckle in The Devil All the Time, a ruthless study into the banality of evil, the abuse of power, and looming faith. Cutting a bloody swath across Ohio and West Virginia in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, director Antonio Campos weaves many tangled webs of lust, deceit, murder, and suicide around a large ensemble of actors, including Tom Holland, Eliza Scanlen, Robert Pattinson, and Riley Keough. You might just say that sin is the movie’s true star: A cop dips into his greed, a preacher indulges his lust and a young man unleashes his wrath. And that’s not even beginning to mention the gun-toting creep with the cuckold fetish. Maybe its just best to say that he’s more a standard bearer, the nastiest distillation of this movie’s uncompromisingly nasty worldview. That particular worldview arises from author Donald Ray Pollock, who not only wrote the novel that this film is based on, but also lends his own voice as the film’s narrator. His observations about the residents of Knockemstiff and Meade, Ohio give the proceedings a sardonic, down-home authenticity.
“It seemed to the son that his father fought the devil all the time,” Pollock remarks dryly of Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a family man with a dangerous belief in his ability to not only perceive the will of God, but also to negotiate with it. Willard, a WWII veteran, is traumatized by his memory of seeing a captured U.S. Marine skinned, crucified, and left for dead by his Japanese captors. The crucified Christ may be a symbol of hope and human redemption, but it has left Willard with a view of the Lord that skews decidedly Old Testament, and a belief that happiness and holiness sometimes demand payment in blood. And so even as Willard forces his young son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta), to kneel alongside him in the mud and pray before a makeshift cross and a dead animal or two near their Knockemstiff cottage, he also educates the boy on the finer points of violence, particularly when wielded in the defense of women. Some years later, after a series of events that finds him living miles away in Coal Creek, West Virginia, the teenage Arvin (now played by Tom Holland) will prove himself to be very much his father’s son, doing his best and sometimes his worst to protect his sweet-souled stepsister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), from the harassment of high-school bullies.
Adapting the novel is both Campos and his brother Paulo, and together they compress some elements and storylines of Pollock’s book (occasionally bringing some rushed beats), to make it less episodic and more streamlined. But they still retain the overall thematic through line, tone, and dense plot, which fills this Southern religio-gothic with a slew of characters, many of whom are arranged in tight narrative and thematic counterpoint to one another. We see Willard first courting Arvin’s waitress mother, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), around the same time another waitress, Sandy (Riley Keough), marries Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke), whose interests include driving, photography, and other, less commendable pursuits. Meanwhile, Willard’s strict fundamentalism finds an even darker echo in a traveling fire-and-brimstone preacher, Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), with an unhealthy belief in the superiority of his own spiritual gifts.
Roy is mirrored in turn by the later appearance of another parson, Preston Teagardin, played by Robert Pattinson with the same glorious comic flamboyance he recently brought to The King. In a cast full of English and Australian actors seamlessly passing themselves off as Appalachian Americans, Pattinson incarnates an inescapably European worldliness: To watch him smack his lips over chicken livers at a church potluck — or to warn his flock, in a hilarious twang, against the dangers of falling victim to a “DELUSION!” — is to fall under the uneasy allure that he looms over some of the younger female churchgoers. Oh, and his presence is kind of fun, too. But, depending on your definition of the word, “fun,” isn’t exactly being advertised during the film’s one-hundred-and-thirty-eight-minute runtime. Certainly “fun” has never really figured too prominently in the bone-chilling work of Antonio Campos, an independent filmmaker who made his name with realist horror films like Afterschool and Simon Killer, and most recently directed the excellent psychological drama Christine. Notably, all three of those earlier films functioned to varying degrees as commentaries on the addictive, manipulative properties of visual mass media. That element is absent from The Devil All the Time, instead, what somewhat takes its place is Christianity, the more dominant form of social control in Knockemstiff, with its unyielding grip on small towns and smaller, more narrow minds.
And while that thesis might sound a little reductive, its mitigated quite potently by the expansiveness of the storytelling. This is a movie that sits right between two conflicts, WWII and the Vietnam War, and treats the rituals of organized religion as a more local extension of their bloodlust. Self-professed men of God turn out to be showman and charlatans at best, murderers and rapists at worst. They invite our scorn, which is not to say they are immune to our pity: Even the vilest character turns out to be in the grip of a deeply misguided longing for transcendence. Those who willingly follow, meanwhile, are shown to be naïve to the point of blindness, especially if — like the lonely Lenora or her hapless orphan mother Helen (Mia Wasikowska) — they are unfortunate enough to be women. Keough’s sharp Susan is one of the few exceptions, the rare woman who, despite and perhaps because of her spectacularly poor choice of a husband, decides to rebel against her assigned lot in life. Matching her for shrewdness and recklessness is her brother, Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), a local sheriff whose various corrupt rackets suggest that secular authority figures are no more trustworthy than religious ones.
How all those strands dovetail is a question that ultimately brings us back to Arvin, played by Holland as a kind of inspired flip side to his most famous role. There’s a streak of Peter Parker’s boyish innocence to Arvin, but that works right along side all his too frighteningly credible personal demons. His journey bears out the movie’s conviction that all children are destined to repeat the mistakes of their parents, but it also suggests that, with a bit of wisdom, calculation, and some sheer luck, the consequences of those mistakes can be curbed and perhaps even reversed. Arvin thus embodies the lone piece of optimism in a drama of all-consuming fatalism, and it’s fair to question whether that makes him the hero of the story or the punchline of a twisted, cosmic joke. While for me this didn’t come through reading the novel, with Campos’ adaptation I sensed a bit of the Coen brothers’ wicked irony in the movie’s backwoods-noir fatalism, and also a measure of their rigorous craft. You can say whatever you want about the conclusions of Campos’ movie, but you can’t deny the massive pleasures in its atmospheric aesthetics — in the persuasiveness of its small-town milieus (with Craig Lathrop’s superb production design and the 35mm cinematography shot by maybe the most underrated cinematographer working, Lol Crawley) and the vigor of its performances. Campos may not persuade everyone all the time (like he so often did to me), but the devil is very much in the details. A bleak, atmospheric, and novelistic piece of southern gothic, The Devil All the Time is a sprawling mosaic of sinewy mayhem; a viciously coiled study on twisted faith, postwar trauma, and the banality of evil.
The Devil All the Time is available to stream on Netflix