Synopsis – Sinister characters converge around a young man devoted to protecting those he loves in a postwar backwoods town teeming with corruption and brutality.
My Take – Filmmakers around the world are quite aware of the fact that adapting a novel into feature form is quite the onerous task, resulting in severe hits and misses. Hence I was excited and worried at the same time when Netflix announced that it would be adapting author Donald Ray Pollock‘s 2011 novel, with a starry cast consisting of performers who have earned goodwill due to their presence in cinematic universes, iconic sagas, or Oscar-winning flicks, especially considering how densely plotted and grim the multi-generational story is, filled so many twists, betrayals and so many horrific acts of violence.
And as someone who enjoyed the novel it was based on, I am relieved that this film adaption from director Antonio Campos is about as close as it could get, as it terrifically captures the same sense of hopelessness and misery of author Pollock‘s book.
Here, director Antonio Campos and writer Paulo Campos, conjure up a somber, dark, extremely violent screenplay, packed with numerous story lines and an underlying theme that’s going to leave you either excited or a little weary. But there is something satisfyingly enthralling about how every cast member here commits to the narrative’s harshness, making this a relentless grind, and the way it meets brutality with brutality is its own kind of thrill.
The story divides its time between Coal Creek, West Virginia, and Knockemstiff, Ohio, and begins in 1957 by following Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a WWII veteran who now conflicted about his religion due to the horror of the war, decides to settle down in a rented home on the top of a hill in Knockemstiff, with his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett), with woods behind them. Though the couple have been living there for nine years now, they are still considered outsiders as their young son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta), regularly comes home with a black eye, with things only getting worse when one member of the small family gets sick.
Now years later, the now-teenage Arvin (Tom Holland) has moved to Coal Creek and lives with his grandmother Emma Russell (Kristin Griffith), his father’s uncle Earskell (David Atkinson), and Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), whose parents Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and Roy (Harry Melling) left her one day and never came back. While Lenora gets picked up on my bullies, Arvin protects her like his own younger sister.
However he doesn’t understand her pull towards religion, as he remains utterly disinterested, disturbed by his father’s increasingly violent interpretation of Christian faith, hence doesn’t sense Lenora being enthralled by Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), their town’s new pastor who definitely has questionable morals.
Meanwhile, Corrupt Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) who has his finger in multiple illegal trades, is worried his activities will be made public before the upcoming election, with his biggest thorn in his side being his younger sister, Sandy (Riley Keough) and her husband, Carl (Jason Clarke), who continue to give him a bad name. But unknown to him, the twisted couple also derive a sadistic pleasure in luring young handsome strangers to their deaths.
All this stories converge in the most unnerving way, with Arvin caught in the vortex of the sin that sweeps through the tale, rendering the final deliverance. Sounds like a lot, yes, but this just scratches the surface; these stories are told in a non-linear fashion and are not too convoluted that you can’t keep up.
The trick, for director Antonio Campos and co-writer Paulo Campos, is bringing what appear to be unrelated plot threads together in a coherent resolution. This being said, the film is definitely worth watching. As it is a relentlessly dark combination of pretty much all that is bad about people, their basest behaviors, seemingly random sins stirred until they come together at the end. It unflinchingly showcases moments of cruelty and brutal violence, but it also is able to find the beauty that occurs in between such moments. And finding that balance between cruelty and beauty is what makes it a film worth your time.
One of the heavier themes of the film is that everyone’s a sinner, the way sin and trauma are often handed down from one generation to the next and with very few exceptions, and nearly every character is either predator or prey. For example, Willard passes his violence along to his 9-year-old son, Arvin, who has a good heart but a fierce temper, and refuses to let evil go unpunished. And it’s no accident that most of the evil deeds in this film are committed by men in positions of authority, especially religious authority.
Throughout the film, almost every character’s decision is made based on their religious beliefs in some shape or form. If they believe praying is the solution to cancer, they’ll pray for days in a row and make sacrifices. If they believe God is giving them supernatural powers, they’ll do everything to test his will. If they believe God is telling them to make the most illogical decisions, perform inhuman actions, and sin in the most awful way possible, they’ll do it in the blink of an eye. This religious manipulation is depicted in such a realistic manner that it transforms the film into a pretty tricky viewing. However I personally found it authentic enough to connect it to the state of the current world.
While the film sells itself with the presence of its cast, it also acts as its biggest drawback. With so many characters, the balance between the numerous story-lines fails to be consistent enough, especially considering how that’s not the case in author Pollock‘s book.
Sure, director Antonio and co-writer Paulo Campos offer every character a good chunk of time and opportunity to understand the motivations behind said characters and connect with their story. However, by the end of the film, some characters have close to zero impact on the narrative in retrospect. Contrasting with my standouts, a few characters feel one-dimensional, used merely either as a plot device to make the story go forward or as an object for gratuitous, gory, bloody killing.
Nevertheless the cast is impeccable with Tom Holland undoubtedly being the biggest surprise by delivering a part that no one could have seen him play. He is followed closely by ‘the man of the hour’ Robert Pattinson who is having a grand old time, raving his sermons in a thick Southern accent no less enjoyable for its in-authenticity. Riley Keough and Bill Skarsgård too deserve the praise for their genuinely impressive displays.
In other roles, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Eliza Scanlen, Kristin Griffith, Harry Melling, Haley Bennett, Mia Wasikowska, David Atkinson, Pokey LaFarge and young actor Michael Banks Repeta are equally effective. Most of all, I really enjoyed author Donald Ray Pollock‘s extensive voice over narration. His dry, sardonic observations bring a rich authenticity to this dark and unnerving story, set in a part of the country he clearly knows well. I wouldn’t want to live there all the time, but for a while, at least, he makes it a fascinating place to visit.
Besides the aforementioned performances, the cinematography and music both do a commendable job of capturing the beauty and desolation found in the setting of Knockemstiff, Ohio. On the whole, ‘The Devil All the Time’ is a grim and harrowing yet entertaining drama that deserves a watch for its cast and themes.
Directed – Antonio Campos
Rated – R
Run Time – 138 minutes