Director Antonio Campos wastes no time setting the tone of The Devil All the Time, his adaptation of the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollack. Within the first few minutes, Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), an American soldier in the South Pacific during World War II, finds the fly-ridden body of a marine crucified on a cross. The scene is the first of many bloody acts in this bleak film, and the theme of violence and sacrifice is explored even further throughout its 139 minutes.
The film doesn’t follow Willard’s point of view for long. From World War II, we skip to 1957 with Willard living in a rural Ohio town called Knocksemstiff with his wife and 9-year-old son, Arvin. From there, the narrative continues to bounce through time, following Arvin along with an eccentric preacher, a corrupt cop, a second eccentric preacher, and a sexy pair of serial killers. The frequent movement through time can feel disjointed, but it’s more than a stylistic choice; the past and present are intentionally blurred. As the child Arvin grows into a young man (Tom Holland), he struggles to learn from the past and instead seems doomed to repeat his father’s mistakes. Similarly, Arvin’s step-sister, Lenore (Eliza Scanlen), retreads the path her mother walked, and so on. Violence is passed down through the generations. Willard’s gun is passed down to Arvin. World War II gives way to the Vietnam War, and the cycle continues.
All of this is narrated by an unseen, omniscient voice. The narrator brings wry, dark humor to the grim story, but mostly it reminds the viewer this is based on a book. In fact, the narrator is voiced by Donald Ray Pollock, the book’s author. Even without the author’s presence, the film feels like an adaptation. The multiple storylines could be separate movies, and not all of the characters have time to breathe. Either this book would have been better served as a mini-series with more room to explore each character, or the script could have used a ruthless editor and less devotion to the source material. Ultimately, the final product feels more like it’s about the sin rather than the sinners.
Speaking of sinners: While this is an ensemble piece (with a truly flawless cast), Arvin is the through-line that connects the stories in the end. Holland proves he’s capable of being more than your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man as Arvin, a young man who is violent and haunted but never feels beyond saving. That said, I wish the film more clearly defined Arvin as the main character. With so many stories going on, the film lacks an anchor. The fate of his soul is clearly meant to be the center of the movie, but it often gets lost in all the noise.
Tom Holland’s grounded performance gives The Devil All the Time heart, but Robert Pattinson’s Preston Teagardin is something else entirely. He doesn’t appear until 55 minutes into the movie (Tom Holland doesn’t appear much sooner) when he is introduced as the new preacher in the Coal Creek church. If his high pitched southern drawl doesn’t immediately tip you off, you quickly learn he’s the creepiest pastor since Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. At times, Pattinson feels like he’s from a different movie altogether (The Lighthouse, perhaps), but his creepy, gaslighting, predatory pastor breathes new life into the narrative. Pattinson screaming, “Delusions!” is instantly as iconic as Robert Mitchum’s H-A-T-E tattoo in The Night of the Hunter.
That leads me to one criticism of The Devil All the Time I can’t ignore: its treatment of women. I should say, the violence in this film is not only against women; men (and even an unfortunate animal) receive their fair share. But it’s also a matter of agency. The two most fleshed-out female characters are Lenore and Sandy; Lenore is pious and meek, and Sandy, played by Riley Keough (It Comes At Night, American Honey), is a murderous sexpot. While different, both have their fates determined by controlling men.
Lenore is bullied, sexually abused, and ultimately her pain is used as a device to motivate our male hero. Sandy is no saint, but the manipulation in her marriage is clear and especially troubling considering the sexual nature of their crimes. Other women in the film don’t fare much better. Perhaps this is an intentional take on toxic masculinity or the ways in which women are subjugated, particularly in a religious context. In that case, it’s a less-than-nuanced take that’s been covered before and with less abuse.
Story aside, I’d be remiss not to mention cinematographer Lol Crawley’s work here. The rural setting is crucial to the story, and here it is captured in all its gritty, undersaturated glory. As bloody and flea-ridden as it is, it’s a surprisingly appealing film to look at. The soundtrack, gospel songs preaching grace in the midst of evil, feels O Brother Where Art Thou turned gothic noir (in a good way).
Overall, there’s so much to like about The Devil All The Time. The performances alone make it worthwhile, it’s well-paced considering its lengthy runtime, and Campos creates a chilling atmosphere that will draw you in for more. It just feels so close to being a better movie than it is. Had the filmmakers trimmed some of the fat, this interesting movie could have been great. Still, despite its flaws, this brutal examination of religion and wickedness in small-town America is one that will live in your mind long after the credits roll.