The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ★★★★

Donald Ray Pollock’s “The Devil All The Time” is one of the more harrowing novels I’ve read in recent memory: it’s a descent into a postwar bible-belt hell that, at its grisliest, makes Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God” look as tame as an episode of “Sesame Street.” Weak stomachs need not turn its pages, although Pollock’s text, at its most provocative, offers a convincingly punishing approximation of what a broken parochial nation clinging on to the notion of bare-minimum civility by the skin of its teeth actually looks like. “The Devil All The Time” traffics in a certain kind of heartless, low-down Southern noir, where every living soul is varying shades of violent and desperate, and all are on a hopeless crash course with one another. Its landscape is both unforgiving and also uniquely American, etched in disquieting shades of blood red and bone grey. The world that this story depicts is one that’s been all but forsaken by any kind of higher power, and populated by an appropriately disagreeable procession of honeymoon killers, deviant clergymen, and the kind of two-timing femme fatales that Jim Thompson used to write about.

Few modern filmmakers could have hoped to adapt such nihilistic material and make it digestible for the average Netflix subscriber, but after having seen the new feature-film adaptation of “The Devil All The Time,” I’m convinced that Antonio Campos has done just that, and then some. Not to suggest that Campos has softened the book’s edges. Campos is a director naturally drawn towards tales of depravity, and the trajectory of his career – from the crisp, clinical, Haneke-inspired drama of “Afterschool” and “Simon Killer” to his sorrowful “Christine,” which went even deeper in its emotional exorcisms, telling the heartbreaking true story of a mentally ill female news anchor desperate to carve out a place for herself in a world that seemed all but indifferent to her existence – has seen a filmmaker evolving and growing into the full range of his considerable gifts. Campos brings his typical formal rigor to “The Devil All The Time,” although, unsurprisingly, this wild new movie has arguably ended up as the gifted director’s most polarizing film to date.

In his latest, Campos offers us an unremitting vision of 20th-century working-class perdition that’s refreshingly bereft of false sentiment, even when it knowingly wallows in familiar genre iconography. The film’s onslaught of atrocities will be triggering for some viewers; others may wonder, “where has this movie been all my life?” It’s that kind of film. Certainly, the cast is certainly nothing to sneeze at. “Devil All The Time,” in addition to being a hard-boiled Southern Gothic, also occupies the Family Curse subgenre. It’s the story of the Russell clan: Arvin (Tom Holland), a hardheaded and instinctively brutal young man desperate to claim a greater destiny for himself in a go-nowhere world where he feels more or less like a prisoner, and also his father Willard, played in a different timeline by Bill Skarsgård, who, in his performance here, seems to be adopting the idiosyncratic and ominous mannerisms of Michael Shannon.

Campos makes use of a broad canvas in “The Devil All The Time,” generously filling out the corners of the story with assorted, odious predators. Robert Pattinson, of course, is the most memorable of the bunch, playing a sexually lascivious rock n’ roll reverend named Preston Teagarden. Teagarden speaks with a Foghorn Leghorn drawl that makes the actor’s over-the-top Northeastern brogue in “The Lighthouse” look downright naturalistic in comparison. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough are a married couple of sweaty sleazeballs who pick up “models” in their beat up-old car, lure them into a proverbial web with promises of a cheap, dirty quickie, and end up staging murderous photographic tableaus in the wake of their victim’s killings. Sebastian Stan, representing the local law, should, in theory, be the living personification of what passes for justice in this godless place, but the “I, Tonya” actor makes the inspired decision to play the character as a loathsome, mouth-breathing dimwit.

These hard-luck losers occupy a damned, crime-blighted Ohio outpost called Knockemstiff, occasionally absconding to its neighboring hillside communities. The populace resides in the shadow of the Second World War, and “Vietnam” is the word on the tip of everyone’s tongue. As much as I personally appreciated “The Devil All The Time” on its own uncompromising terms, I understand why the film has received a somewhat muted reaction compared to the rest of Campos’ work. It is an onslaught of rudeness and barbarity shot through with a sense of grand, earnest Old Hollywood melodrama that would make Douglas Sirk proud. In other words, it’s far from fashionable, and during our current, apocalyptic national moment, a movie this defiantly unpleasant is probably even more of a tough sell than it would already be. I must be, in the words of the movie’s unseen, omniscient narrator, a “sick fuck,” because I adored “The Devil All The Time,” for all its extremities and indulgence, and I remain convinced that Antonio Campos is one of the most exciting directors currently working.

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