The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ★★★

"Don't be quiet. Pray like you mean it, boy!"

Film Independent advance screener.

The new star-studded film from Antonio Campos, The Devil All the Time, will bring many eyes from its A-list lineup. ::takes deep breath:: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson. But if you've got the patience and can strap in for a slow burn psychological thriller, this Netflix gamble and Jake Gyllenhaal production is sure to please fans of the genre, and of the novel on which the story is based.

Nor far from the West Virginia border in southeastern Ohio lies the town of Knockemstiff, to where young World War II vet Willard (Skarsgård) returns after seeing atrocities in the South Pacific, where he quickly meets his new sweetheart Charlotte (Bennett). They move to a country home and have a beautiful son named Arvin. Here Willard has become agnostic, or at least despondent in faith, despite a fiery preacher riling up pentecostal worship. It's through his grandmother that he finds God again, praying with his son as he grows up. Years pass and Arvin is 9, learning lessons from his father, when suddenly his mother comes down with cancer. Willard's faith now is so strong, he believes a sacrifice to God will help ease his wife's pain. Despite killing the family dog, she dies. It's in this atmosphere that Arvin ages, shaped by tragedy.

Meanwhile, that zealous preacher had a baby girl named Lenora, orphaned when he killed his mother and is later murdered himself. The young girl and Arvin end up as step siblings, raised by his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith). Years later, the two (played by Holland and Scanlen) will come of age in the 60s in a region with a twisted pair of psychosexual serial killers, poverty and solitude, and a new devilish reverend (Pattinson) with a sinful eye.

It's a lot to set up. This is an hour into a film that's still got another 75 minutes to go. But if you take note of what Campos is layering into the story -- co-written with his brother Paulo, based on Donald Ray Pollock's novel of the same name -- and its themes of dark bonds through generations and poisonous religion, there's much to appreciate in an admittedly lurid and violent tale with punishing (a)moral lessons.

It would be fair to criticize a narrative which skips years in just moments, and piles on the sordid behavior in increasingly ugly masses. You'll need help from a narrator in fact, which turns out to be Pollock himself. But damned if it doesn't look beautiful, an Appalachian Miller's Crossing sort of vibe. At least, when this reviewer could appreciate it, because no matter how dark I got my living room there were multiple scenes where I couldn't hardly see anything.

What's undeniable though is the talented cast, and each gets their turn where Pattinson shines and Holland commands the second half of the film in easily the best role of his young career. It takes some time but when Holland turns it on, he is sensational in a vengeful performance, forged in death and pain. The Devil All the Time may lack a little focus in its still captivating story, but is a more than adequate Southern Gothic tale of lies and death while God turns his gaze away.

Added to The Narrative Films of 2020.

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