ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
It seemed to Arvin that his father fought the devil all the time, "the devil" here being religious repression. Arvin's father Willard served in World War II and witnessed one of his fellow soldiers crucified alive, and he carried this pain with him for the rest of his life.
This trauma and Willard's inability or unwillingness to process it inaugurate a cycle of generational violence that he passes down to his son. He teaches Arvin that violence is the proper response to violence, sowing the seeds to raise a country of blind men who gladly gave their own eyes for a chance to take their enemies'. He teaches his son to pray not for forgiveness or absolution, but to fix other people, to cure his mother's cancer.
The thuddingly obvious question to ask in a film like this is where does this evil come from? Is it from God or from humanity? And here the movie tips its hand: Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer immediately after Willard teaches his son to kill a man with his fists, an act Arvin later imitates complete with a match cut to his father's bloody knuckles. They might not have directly caused Charlotte's cancer, but they're karmically responsible for it.
Arvin discusses the nature of good and evil and the value of prayer with his adopted sister Lenora. "There's a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there," he opines. "Maybe you should try praying for them," she suggests with optimistic naivete, but he comes back at her with barely concealed venom: "You already do enough for all of us. Where's it doing you much good, huh?"
Just look at the two preachers: one hopelessly stubborn and ignorant, the other a manipulative sexual predator. This is not a world where religion has any power to do good or any power to heal. There is no God in this world, whether good or evil. There are only selfish, arrogant, short-sighted men and their endless cycles of inherited violence. The only way out is to bury the gun with the bones.
It's monotonously bleak, deceptively shallow, self-seriously portentous, and dead-horse-beatingly long, but the massive cast makes it a bit more fun than it really deserves to be. I like stories about intergenerational inherited trauma, so ultimately I gave this one a pass, but even I feel like it should either be shorter or a little more complex.