The Devil All the Time
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Religion, love, death, war. These things are constantly on the minds of the characters in The Devil All the Time (streaming on Netflix), a drama about brutality, corruption and faith. The subjects are veterans, preachers and serial killers whose struggles with God lead to violence that effects the lives of the women they love and their children. This is a sprawling, very dark, story, following damaged people from the aftermath of World War 2 until the Vietnam War. It is a lot to handle; both the violence on-screen and the size of the narrative, which is too much even for this 138-minute movie to deal with. The performances are strong, the direction is confident, it has a sure sense of place and gritty cinematography that fits its tone. It bites into some really thick themes, never shying from their consequences. For me, the positives outweighed the negatives but, be warned, this is not an easy watch.
The Devil All the Time (based on the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who serves as the narrator here) starts by introducing us to Willard, just back from WW2 and obviously suffering from PTSD. His difficulties with anger and faith (those two things are inextricably intertwined throughout the story) are passed on to his son, Arvin. We also meet Arvin’s devout step-sister, a crooked sheriff, his sister, her serial killer husband and two preachers who give their profession a bad name. Evil touches all of their lives in some way, either through their own actions or because of their family. It takes place in small towns in West Virginia and Ohio. These are towns where people are connected to each other by their church. That is where the characters meet. It is also where the tragedies begin.
Director/cowriter Antonio Campos stares at these angry, lost people and never looks away. He somehow makes time for each of the major characters (they number in the double-digits), making sure we know who is who and how they are linked, even if there isn’t room to give all of them depth. The scenes of violence are not sensationalized. They are brutal and sudden. At times as disturbing are the moments leading to them, like a preacher’s passionate sermon about fear, a conversation between a hitchhiker and the people planning to kill him or a father teaching his son that the only way to respond to violence is with more focused violence. Campos does nothing to lighten the darkness existing in nearly every frame. Neither the characters nor the audience is given a way out.
His skill with his ensemble is admirable, as are the individual performances. The cast is really deep, including Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan and Mia Wasikowska. Holland gives a strong, haunted, performance as the adult Arvin. Skarsgård, equally haunted, sets a lot of themes in motion as Arvin’s father. Robert Pattinson gives a strange, affected, performance as a manipulative preacher. It is different from anything else in the movie, but that awkwardness is probably right for the character. Clarke and Keough are also effective as the killers, though their subplot would have worked better if we could understand what was driving her. The men are definitely fleshed out more than the women.
Therein lies my biggest issue with The Devil All the Time: its depiction of women as either saints or whores. Arvin’s mother, grandmother, step-sister and her mother are seen as beings of purity that the men latch onto in search of their own salvation. When they have sex, it results in pain and punishment. The best example of this is Sandy, played by Keough as a woman who could potentially have gone down a more righteous path if she hadn’t been corrupted by her seriously disturbed husband. The men lean on them for their faith and the women suffer when they are unable find it. The lack of nuance is problematic. While the men are seen clearer and are even, in a couple instances, forgiven, the women are symbols and victims with little agency. The fact that this hurts the movie, yet doesn’t sink it is due, in part, to the work of the actresses, who try their best to make something out of too little, and, honestly, the overall sad nature of the production. In a way, all of these people live lives destined for pain.
The Devil All the Time is a challenging experience. It requires patience and a willingness to look into the darkness with the filmmakers. It features impressive direction and acting in a story that is always interesting, even when it seemed to be spinning its wheels. There is a great movie in there somewhere. In this form, its flaws help shine a light on how great its successes are.
3½ out of 5
Tom Holland as Arvin Russell
Bill Skarsgård as Willard Russell
Riley Keough as Sandy Henderson
Jason Clarke as Carl Henderson
Sebastian Stan as Lee Bodecker
Michael Banks Repeta as 9-year-old Arvin Russell
Eliza Scanlen as Lenora Laferty
Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin
Harry Melling as Roy Laferty
Mia Wasikowska as Helen Hatton
Haley Bennett as Charlotte Russell
Donald Ray Pollock as Narrator
Directed by Antonio Campos
Screenplay by Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos