The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ★★★½

Knockemstiff, Ohio and Derry, Maine, in addition to sharing Bill Skarsgård as a resident, both seem to be exclusively populated by creeps and lunatics. The former actually exists, but I would be stunned to find out that the gloomy depiction offered by “The Devil All the Time” is totally accurate. Antonio Campos seemingly endeavored to craft the most depressing Netflix original yet and his trip to the American heartland of the 1950s and 60s, a deeply unsettling study of faith turned deadly, can emphatically lay claim to the title. We are introduced to several people from three generations in short order, most importantly Willard Russell, played by the already mentioned Skarsgård, a traumatized Marine just returned from the Pacific War. He makes a pitstop at a diner in a nearby town and falls for one of the waitresses, whose name he doesn’t catch during his initial visit. At the same time, photographer Carl hits it off with Sandy, who also works at the restaurant and the narration suggests an unsavory future is in the cards for the two of them. Donald Ray Pollock, who wrote the book this is based on, intermittently chimes in via voiceover to remind us just how awful the people we are following are, something entirely underscored by their deeds. It’s a tiring experience, miserable to the point of numbing, but it never quite lost its hypnotic dread. Even if I was appalled, I wanted to know where this was all going.

The first-billed Tom Holland doesn’t show up until about 45 minutes in. Until then, his character Arvin Russell is played by stone-faced Michael Banks Repeta as a bullied kid who is encouraged by his father to stand up for himself, ideally with his fists to send the right message. Tragedy strikes, and then again, and then again and young Arvin finds himself in the care of his pious grandmother, who is already raising Lenora, a girl who may or may not be an orphan. Teenage Arvin has been shaped by his past and has internalized the lessons of his upbringing. Then Robert Pattinson arrives in town, as the new reverend out all people. I haven’t really been following the Pattinsance (I assume that’s not actually a thing, but it ought to be), but based on “Tenet” and his performance here, it’s all too clear that he has deliberately been seeking out opportunities to shed his past image as a heartthrob and challenge himself in a variety of scenarios and personalities. He won’t win an Oscar for this, but he will someday, no question.

Some of the images Campos conjures up are assured to leave viewers with nightmares. That includes Harry Melling of Dudley Dursley fame dumping out a jar of spiders over himself during a fiery sermon. Between this and his role in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, he has really found a niche and his performance as preacher Roy Laferty is an unnerving display of utterly unhinged devotion to God. I’d also suggest dog lovers stay far away from this film. There is one scene in particular that will cause you sleepless nights. And towards the end, the bodies really begin to pile up, something there was already no shortage of. That’s a bit of a problem, because there are so many different threads going on concurrently that the last thirty minutes mostly just entail checking off boxes in terms of getting each character’s journey across the finish line. “The Devil All the Time” is an ambitious film. Too ambitious for its running time. There isn’t enough room to breathe for the various characters to fully establish themselves, which is especially true for Sebastian Stan as the corrupt local sheriff. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he and Mia Wasikowska were only on set for a day or two.

The lesson here is clear. Religious faith, when unchecked, can have dreadful consequences. The residents of Knockemstiff aren’t being policed by any earthly authority. Their sheriff is paid off by the local mob. They only answer to God himself and what he seemingly asks of his adherents is nothing short of revolting. Of course, it could also be that he is silent, deafeningly silent to the point where some of his followers are driven into madness. Or, if you are Reverend Preston Teagardin, maybe you have found a way to conflate your desires with God’s plan for you. Or you are just full of shit and stumbled upon a convenient way to take advantage of teenage girls. It’s unforgiving and ugly, a trip into a darker, wilder part of America that many of us often neglect to think about. But I disagree with the implied core philosophy here. “The Devil All the Time” takes the cynical stance that mankind is innately evil and prone to giving into its worst, animalistic drives when the basic pillars of civilization are absent. To my mind, that’s a reversal of cause and effect. I believe it is exactly because humanity was able to reach a fairly universal consensus about acceptable behavior that they decided everyone would be better off if we did away with hostile tribalism and organized societies. And didn’t indiscriminately stab and shoot each other for our believes. That’s a step in evolution the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio seemingly missed out on.

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