The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ★★★★★

There's a brilliant sequence in The Devil All the Time in which Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson interact. When it was over, I realized I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth. I had been holding my breath during the final seconds of the scene, and I was almost gasping for air when it ended. I don't usually feel this tense during a movie. For those who suffer from anxiety, this is a warning.

Before watching this movie , take your time. Get ready for a painful and long ride that will confront you with the worst of human nature. This juicy, heavy narrative is definitely not for everyone - it's dark, devastating, disturbing, horrifying. But it's necessary.

It's a tale about how the paths of different people get crossed - perhaps by fate, or pure serendipity. But it's way more than that. Our main character here is Arvin Russell, brilliantly interpreted by Tom Holland. He has a painful past, and his past is only the beginning of his suffering. During his childhood, he was confronted by the authority of his father, his delusions with religion and spirituality, and loss - so much loss. A broken childhood turned him into a bitter young man. And it's with this bitterness that he dealt with the citizens of this corrupt, small town where he lives.

With a voice-over narration (something that may have bothered some, but which is necessary in my opinion, since it's a very dense story and without it the movie would have to be 3 hours long or longer), we slowly learn about the characteristics of this small town that represents a very contemporary side of the United States of America: religious fanaticism, moral conservatism, obsession with guns, prejudice, hatred. Remember these are the 50s, right after WW2. The movie slowly builds the stage on which the Vietnam War would be defended and applauded by many. The stage on which Richard Nixon would later be elected.

The Devil All the Time does not only tell the story of Arvin Russell and those who crossed his path - it also tells the story of this little town, and why not, the story of USA. This use of a city to represent a cut out of a entire society and make a sociological analysis of a certain decade really reminded me of Haneke's The White Ribbon, in which he portrays how German society was like a few years before WW1. While The White Ribbon approaches the social mechanisms that made the emergence of national socialism possible, The Devil All the Time gives us a taste of the social cauldron that made Vietnam War possible - and approved by many. It's not a mere coincidence that, at one point of the movie, Tom Holland's character hears on the radio President Johnson's speech on the Vietnam war:

First, we intend to convince the Communists that we cannot be defeated by force of arms or by superior power. They are not easily convinced. In recent months they have greatly increased their fighting forces and their attacks and the number of incidents.
I have asked the Commanding General, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. We will meet his needs.

The values, the ideology, the morals - everything contributed with the "success" of The Vietnam War. And this movie portrays the exact kind of people who supported it.

And its criticism goes beyond politics. It also attacks the hypocrisy of religious institutions by showing a corrupt, morally despicable priest, and it also reflects on the dangers of religious fanaticism that can lead people to participate in horrid acts all in the name of twisted religious values. Everything is rotten, corruptible and vain - and nothing deserves redemption.

The tremendous screenplay by Antonio Campos that efficiently adapted Donald Ray Pollock's book is accompanied by marvelous edition and cinematography - at one point of the movie, the reverend played by Robert Pattinson gives his sermon in front of a cross - and the arms of the cross together form a kind of halo around his head, in one of the most brilliant and ironic cinematic moments of the year. Needless to say, the entire cast is superb. Bill Skarsgard is great in his small but hard role, Robert Pattinson shines (as usual) as a horrifying reverend and Sebastian Stan plays amazingly well a corrupt sheriff. But the real star here is definitely Tom Holland. In the most demanding role of his career so far, he gives a jaw-dropping performance that only experienced actors usually give. His work here is completely organic, convincing and spontaneous - he's definitely promising and will probably have many other brilliant performances to come.

The fact that this amazing work had such a lukewarm reception among critics baffles and disappoints me. I wonder if perhaps it would be more praised if there was a more famous name behind it. Its narrative is just as good as anything by the Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson - would it be more acclaimed if it was directed by any of them? Antonio Campos deserves all the credit for adapting a very dense book in such a bold, daring way. His directing style is remarkable and I hope to watch many more of his movies.

The Devil All the Time may not please everybody because it is indeed not pleasing. It's a visceral portrait of everything we don't want to see - the dirt of our past, the putrid side of our origins. We are just a reflection of our parents, the generation portrayed in this amazing movie. We drink from violence, hatred, vain obsessions and hypocrisy. Humankind has been fighting the devil all the time. We tend to forget that the devil is us all.

Paula liked these reviews