dir: Antonio Campos
The Devil All the Time has a brutal story. It’s almost as if Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads album came to life in the form of a Netflix original movie. It’s mostly set in or around a place called Knockemstiff, Ohio, and mostly confines itself to the miserable lives of a number of people who live and wander around Ohio and West Virginia. And the place actually exists! Hopefully this laundry list of tragedy and awful luck didn’t happen to too many people the author knew, but you never know.
I have no knowledge of what life is actually like in those states, but, fucking hell, this is not a movie that’s going to inspire a lot of tourism. The author of the book this film is based on, being Donald Ray Pollock, also helps out by reading his own words in voiceover, telling us more about these sorry sons of bitches than we probably ever wanted to know, and even, in a moment that I’m ashamed to admit made me laugh out loud, calls one of the worst of them “the sick fuck”, with all the disgust he can muster, in case we had any doubts how he feels about his own creations.
Like God himself, Pollock knows what it is to become sick of one’s own creations, and devises often the cruellest ways for them to depart this mortal coil, only the most ironic of methods for his and our amusement. Underlying everything is a feeling of hopelessness, of everything being corrupt, that the good can’t last long in the face of evil, but that it’s really not God’s fault. Oh no.
Many characters have a deeply distorted idea of their Christian faith, one which they feel compels them to do a bunch of horrible stuff to themselves or each other, but the fault doesn’t seem to be with the faith itself, but in their twisted and selfish delusions. It is all well and good to decry the abuses of the clergy or the hypocrisy of the faithful doing evil and pretending it to be God’s will, but we are never really confused when a person does a horrible thing here: that ain’t Jesus telling you to murder a dog or stab your wife in the neck; that’s all on you, buddy.
There is a vast number of characters, and interlacing stories, but they manage to get pared down significantly. The story mostly starts just after World War II as a soldier (Bill Skarsgard, yep, one of Stellan Skarsgard’s hundreds of talented children) returns to his pokey Ohio town, but not before he meets the love of his life (Hayley Bennett) in a diner during the return journey. He sees her beauty and kindness to a disabled homeless chap, and is convinced his life can go no other way.
He carries with him not only the experiences of the war, but the specific experience of having seen a man crucified and skinned alive. The Christian cross has taken on a much darker significance for him. Plus, his character’s name is Willard, and nothing good ever comes of people being called that.
Upon returning home to a relieved mother and uncle, it is revealed in voiceover that the mother made a deal with God that if he survived the war, she would make him marry a local orphan girl (Mia Wasikowska) called Helen. But Willard wants the waitress from the diner. What’s a vengeful god to do when people don’t keep their promises?
Willard marries Charlotte, and then have a son they call Arvin, for some reason, and move into a house that doesn’t even have running water, and are happy, for a time. The father becomes fixated on the rough-hewn cross he sets up at the back of the house, and only becomes more fixated as time rolls on. His fixation centres on the idea that Christ on the cross, much like the chap who he put out of his misery during the war, was a sacrifice to please God. So, if it doesn’t seem like God is listening (and surely it’s worse when it seems like God is?), you may need to make some sacrifices in order to get his attention.
Helen, rebuffed by Willard, fixates on a lunatic travelling preacher (Harry Melling) who thinks his faith in Jesus protects him even from spider bites, which he demonstrates by pouring spiders onto himself. Somehow, when one of the spider’s bites him, things get even worse for all concerned, which will lead to more sadness, especially for her baby daughter Lenora.
A serial killer (Jason Clarke, somehow looking even seedier and even more evil than when he played Edward Kennedy in Chappaquiddick) meets a sweet young thing, and brings her into his serial killing ways as they travel the roads of West Virginia and Ohio looking for hot young men to kill.
The story keeps cutting back and forth in order to give us a pretty good idea of where people are and when, especially when it comes to the bad things that happened to them. Most of the people I’ve mentioned thus far are dead either by murder or worse before the first hour has elapsed, and in the cruellest continuation of all, it is the children of these people who have to live with the legacy of what happened, especially when most of the time, they are not privy to what their various sad fates have been.
Lenora and Arvin, for different reasons, end up living with Arvin’s grandma, and though it’s the mid-60s now, life is not really much easier for any of the people left standing. Arvin (now played by Tom Holland) remembers the lesson his father taught him, because the most important thing a father can teach a son is when to beat up people that have wronged you, like, timing-wise. Arvin remembers watching his father beat the shit out of two poachers, one of whom had the temerity to say crudely sexual comments about Charlotte.
But you don’t just attack straight away. You bide your time. Then you beat the shit out of them. Because that always sets things right for ever more, doesn’t it?
In Arvin’s life, jaded by so much death and misery around him, he is very wary of the company of others, and distrustful of people in general. School bullies prey upon Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who prey upon her because they can. So Arvin, remembering the cross, remembering the worst lessons imparted by his father, bides his time, waiting for the right moment to right all the wrongs with violence. Each day he and Lenora travel to her mother’s grave in the cemetery, just next to the church, which she does with relief, and he with irritation, until he no longer does, much to Lenora’s regret.
The town gets a new preacher called, and I shit you not, the Very Reverend Preston Teagarten (Robert Pattinson). This man, in a film filled with monsters, is the worst, the absolute fucking worst, and I’m not even just talking about the accent Pattinson puts on. To set the scene early on they conjure a welcome party for him that has him behave so excruciatingly rude to Arvin’s grandma that the far worse crimes he commits later on almost pale in comparison.
I don’t want to linger upon it, but his performance, and voice in this, are just staggeringly bad. I don’t know if the awfulness of the character impacts on how I see the actor, but, honestly, yuck. It’s like watching Marlon Brando at his absolute worst. I am getting the feeling that he’s reaching that stage of power where he no longer has to listen to directors or dialect coaches or anyone anymore, and just does whatever he thinks works. His Southern dandy accent is just *chef’s kiss*.
As a predator, the Reverend preys upon the vulnerable, which perpetuates the cascade of human misery started well before these children were born, but will persist long after they are dead. And he’s not even a Catholic, for crying out loud.
I feel like the story, wrapped up as it is in that Southern Gothic Old Testament Ol’ Timey bullshit that I love, kinda undermines itself by the end, because there are just so many awful people who do so many awful things, that coincidentally get wrapped up in the awful actions of others, just coincidentally, all at the same time, that it makes you wonder whether the ultimate point is that people are awful, or that God’s either indifferent or malicious towards us. And for all the toxic masculinity wrapped up in Arvin’s dad’s conception of the world, which, considering where it initially leads, we come to know is “wrong”, in the end, with the decisions that Arvin makes, and the actions that he takes, are we to take it that Willard’s approach to violence and sacrifice was wrong, but Arvin’s is right? It’s almost like saying “Violence isn’t the solution to life’s problems, except when it totally is.”
I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to consider that, considering the bone-deep cynicism involved, the story stands by its stance that, sure, some people do need killing, and there is no other redemption possible for them. And that the righteous occasionally are the chosen ones for meting out divine vengeance, unlike the other people who just think they’re working in God’s good graces(?)
I haven’t even mentioned the corrupt sheriff yet, who I could almost say is worst of all, considering he’s meant to be upholding the law, but, honestly, each person who comes along is worse than the last, and I’ve written it about every character that comes along. It really is a testament to the Power of Acting that Sebastian Stan, probably most famous for playing the Winter Soldier in the Marvel movies, where he looks like a cross between the lead guitarist of a 90s grunge band and the lead singer of an emo band from the 2000s, can look like a fat middle-aged piece of shit here.
He really is the worst, except for the other guy who’s the worst, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that his sister is half of the serial killer couple. Bam! Everything’s connected, man, everything’s connected.
I very much enjoyed The Devil All the Time, but it is a horribly, malevolently mean story about how awful people are to each other, and how bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, and everyone pretty much gets destroyed by the storm that is life. It’s well shot, it’s well acted (except for R Patts), it has a longish run time, but it didn’t feel like there was anything superfluous in the story. Holland especially manages to look and act like a tightly coiled spring throughout.
I sure as shit don’t want to ever live anywhere near around any of these kinds of places, but the film takes the time and the trouble to make that part of the world seem like a real, lived in place, where religion, or more accurately these peoples’ terror in the face of God leads them to do terrible things over the decades, and that the best thing you can do is either kill everyone or leave.
I like to think there’s something in that for all of us.
8 times the voiceover telling us Lenora’s thought process was just the cruellest moment in a movie filled with cruelty out of 10
“The truth is, some people are just better off in the ground.” – how ironic your words will prove to be, dear sheriff – The Devil All the Time.