“The Devil All the Time” 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 works – especially the performances, some of which are muted, some of which are so over the top they need parachutes to land back in the story (hello, Robert Pattinson). Director Antonio Campos’ adaptation of Donald Ray Pollack’s novel is brutal, yes. But it’s also compelling.
The film takes place in Knockemstiff, Ohio, and nearby towns in Ohio and West Virginia, over the course of a generation or so. At the center of the story is Arvin Russell (Tom Holland). Picked on as a boy (then played by Michael Banks Repeta), Arvin also has to deal with his father, Willard (Bill Skarsgård), a World War II veteran whose experiences in battle have made him a religious fanatic – a level of enthusiasm he expects from Arvin, as well.
Tragedy intervenes – so often in this movie they might as well have called it that – and Arvin goes off to live with his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith). He becomes close with Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), whom Emma has also taken in.
Meanwhile, Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) indulge in their strange hobby: They pick up men who are hitchhiking, pal around with them, maneuver them into compromising positions with Sandy and murder them while Carl takes pictures. For some people, it’s macramé; for others, serial killing, evidently.
Sandy’s brother, Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), is the local sheriff, seemingly always running for re-election and too busy twisting under the thumb of a local crime boss to worry much about all the missing young men.
Finally there is the church, where new pastor Preston Teagarden (Pattinson) has taken over after the departure of his rather colorful predecessor. This is old-time religion, where dumping a jar of spiders on your head to prove your faith isn’t unheard of. It’s also an ideal place for immoral creeps to take advantage of true believers. Just, you know, saying.
Sounds like a lot, yes, but this just scratches the surface; there’s a lot of story being told over the 2 hours and 18 minutes of the film. The trick, for Antonio Campos and co-writer Paulo Campos, is bringing what appear to be unrelated plot threads together in a coherent resolution.
Actually, that’s one of the tricks. Another is keeping an audience you are pummeling with misery interested in continuing. The cast goes a long way in helping with that. Clarke is suitably creepy, his Carl a good old boy who might just cut your head off. Pattinson has a grand old time, raving his sermons in a thick Southern accent no less enjoyable for its inauthenticity.
Holland has to carry the biggest load, though the film is as much an ensemble as anything else. But he’s the link between all the stories. His performance is certainly a departure from playing Spider-Man. Arvin has been molded by death, insanity, great loss and disappointment. Holland does a good job conveying all that, often more with a look than actions. When pushed, however, his actions are furious and punishing. Frankly he seems a little young for such a man, but he gets the point across that life has thrown a lot at him in a short time.
The best performance is from Keough. Sandy is starting to have doubts about committing random murder – duh – and wants out but can’t come up with an exit plan. Or, maybe more accurately, can’t follow through on one. She’s trapped, even while holding the keys to her escape. Keough sells that contradiction, and then some.
“The Devil All the Time” depends on these kinds of performances. Watching is a harrowing-enough experience with them. Without? That would not be a trip you’d want to take.
Three stars
out of four stars
Rated R; violence, bloody and disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity, language
2 hours, 18 minutes
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