Review – The Devil All The Time (2020)

by Old King Clancy

When I saw the trailer for Netflix’s new film, The Devil All The Time, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard a lot about it given the cast, but a dark tale of pre-Vietnam Americana bolstered by some big names, I was interested. Having not read the book, I can’t say how it works as an adaptation but on its own merits, this is a pretty damn good flick if a little bit heavy on the grimness.

Set in the years between the end of World War 2 and the start of Vietnam, the film centers on a collection of characters in the area bordering Ohio and West Virginia, chief among them is Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), the only son of troubled and violent veteran Willard (Bill Skarsgard) and kind-hearted waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett). Having suffered a harsh childhood, Arvin is a short-tempered young man whose loyalties lie with his pious step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), herself a product of a disturbed childhood but turned to God for guidance instead.

Surrounding them is a host of unsavory characters including serial killer husband and wife pair Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough) who seduce young hitchhikers before brutally slaughtering them, corrupt sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) who is trying to seek re-election, but his past misdeeds are catching him to him and new preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) whose handsome face and charm hide an oily and predatory nature.

As all stories cross paths with each other across the decades, Arvin is placed at the center of it all, torn between protecting himself from the violence in his blood, or embracing the darkness for better or worse.

If it sounds like I’m not covering much then you’re right, there’s a lot of story to unpack that even the first half-hour is still introducing plot elements and characters and has a fair few spoilers before we’ve even reached the meat of the story. I do think that the film could’ve easily been an hour or so longer to allow more room to breathe – and I’ve seen some people online say that the book would’ve suited a miniseries better – but even still I did like what we got. There’s a cycle of violence here, started by Willard’s inability to let go of what he saw in WW2 and perpetuated by his son Arvin trying desperately to make sense of the world around him. Arvin is the key to everything, it’s his decisions, his breaking points that ties the film to that theme of violence and anger and by the time it happens you don’t blame him, this is an ugly world and he has to put up with the worse elements.

Some people might complain that the story is too dark, and they won’t be wrong, everything from murder, suicide, corruption and castration is on show here and it doesn’t let up. But personally I liked that, I liked that the film didn’t hold back from the grimness because this is a darkened tale that even by the end you’re not sure if the right choices have been made or not, keeping it so relentlessly grim worked so as not to sanitize the story.

Acting was strong on all fronts, some characters got a little side-tracked due to the time-constraints but nobody put in a bad performance. Mia Wasikowski and Harry ‘Dudley’ Melling had small but pivotal roles as Helen and Roy Laferty, Lenora’s parents. Helen’s role is an early indication of just how disturbing this story is gonna get and Wasikowski’s doe-eyed fits that lost innocence well while Melling continues his turn away from Potter with a fire and brimstone preacher man who mistakes ill delusions for the voice of god. Both are small roles but they set the stage for what’s to come.

Sebastian Stan could’ve had a bigger role as corrupt sheriff Lee, he pops up here and there, usually covering his own ass and chastising his sister Sandy, seemingly aware of her murderous misdeeds without saying as much. He’s slimy enough to unnerve you but out of the three sets of villains. He’s the least defined, which is a shame because given his role as the sheriff there was a lot of potential there and Stan has some chilling moments, but not enough to warrant his seeming importance towards the end of the film.

Clarke and Keough do slightly better as Carl and Sandy Henderson, the serial killer couple who target male hitchhikers with Sandy seducing and sleeping with their victims to distract them long enough to let Carl brutally slaughter them. I would’ve liked a little bit more from them away from the killing scene, we get a couple scenes that hint at Sandy finally having enough of Carl’s twisted ways and Keough injects her with enough sympathy to almost forget she’s a messed up crazy killer, but what we got was enough of a hint and on the killing fields they were a dangerous pair. Clarke especially going to some real brutal scenes and making you disgusted by the sight of him.

Highlight of the villains though was Preston Teagardin, new preacher in town. I’ve been enjoying Pattinson’s career renaissance over the last few years and while he has played villains before during that time, Teagardin allows him to really make your skin crawl, even through all his charm and his Christian swagger you can just tell he’s an oily piece of shit and Pattinson embraces that. It’s not a huge role, given the ensemble nature of the whole piece, but you do feel his absence when he’s not on screen but when he is the man grabs hold and refuses to let go, which is a little more meta than I realized considering what he does with the young and naïve women of town.

On the other side of the coin, Skarsgard and Bennett do decent work as Arvin’s parents, Bennett’s Charlotte is one of the rare pieces of genuine goodness in the film and she has that quality about her that lit up the screen in her short screen time. Skarsgard had more to do as Willard and he does some pretty impressive work with it, having just come home from the war in the Pacific and seen some of the brutality that the Japanese inflicted on his fellow soldiers, Willard has trouble readjusting to normal life until he found Charlotte who keeps him centered. Now with a family to care for, Willard tries to keep to praying as a way to keep his soul clean but his violent tendencies and distorted world view hold him back. Taking control of pretty much the entire first act, Skarsgard delivers a troubled man in Willard, one who knows what good is but can’t seem to find the way to enact it upon himself. His fall through in the first act is harsh but recognizable and even in his darkest moments you find yourself sympathizing with Skarsgard’s performance.

Rounding out the cast was our main two heroes, Lenora and Arvin, step-siblings who only have each other in this distressing world they’re in. It’s interesting how much both characters mirror each other in their history but their paths diverged quite drastically. Lenora is a homely and pious girl, naïve but kind-hearted, believing in the best of people even when she’s constantly bullied and harassed at school. Like Charlotte and her own mother Helen, she’s a ray of hope in the hopelessness which is why Arvin fights so hard to keep her safe, because there’s so many elements that want to extinguish that hope and Scanlen carries this film through some of it’s harshest moments.

The star of the show is easily Tom Holland whose Arvin as far removed from Spider-Man as you can get. Arvin is a vicious little bastard, some of Holland’s earliest scenes has him getting into fights to protect Lenora and then his revenge on those fights get really bloody really quickly, it’s honestly a shock seeing how well Holland takes to that element of Arvin’s character. But that’s just what Arvin needed, a fresh-face that is a blank slate, waiting to be burdened by the violence and derangement of the world around him, eventually you realize that this film is a battle for Arvin’s soul as he torn by the love and care shown by his mother and the vengeance and blood-thirst of his father. Holland really is fantastic in the role, his way of suppressing his emotions when needed to hide his true feelings is very impressive and you can always tell that he doesn’t want to do the things he does, but when his breaking point reaches he’s left with no other option.

The film is directed by Antonio Campos who I last saw with his film Simon Killer, a film I was very much looking forward to and turned out to be one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever seen so I was slightly iffy regarding him. But as it turns out, he pulled off a hell of a job here, fully embracing the dark heart of this story and all the ugliness around it. What you’ll notice first and foremost is the use of a narrator, and most notably the narrator is actually the author of the original book Donald Ray Pollock. While the narrator is used as a crux to push the film forward a couple of times, on the whole I liked the inclusion, it added to the novella feel of the whole thing, that these are all little stories that intermingle until they finally crash together. Having Pollock narrate added a sense of familiarity, that this was someone who knew these people intimately and was telling their tale – often being darkly humorous with how he described some of the more viscous characters.

With the story set in West Virginia, the appeal of 50s Americana is nowhere to be found, these are all backwoods, miles wide emptiness filled with mud and scum, not to say it’s unappealing but the vastness of tree and fields leaves you feeling more than a little isolated, which probably explains why so much evil is allowed to happen without consequence. It’s a world where everything is hidden, where bodies can be buried and never discovered until years later because nobody knows where to begin looking and Campos manages to capture that well, you never feel safe, you never feel like there’s any part of the film that allows you to catch your breath because it’s everywhere, from Willard’s backwoods log-prayer to Teagardin’s pristine pews, nowhere is safe from the violence of men. In fact the theme of faith and the predatory nature of religion play heavily into the film, while not vocally Arvin is pretty clearly anti-religion given the damage done by his father’s faith and the film maintains that damage throughout, mostly through Teagardin and what he curses the town with, even in a place of God the weak are not safe. But not to go into spoilers, there are a few scenes in the third act that leave you questioning if these were random acts of chance or if a higher power had some hand involved. I actually wish they touched upon it more because the theme of faith VS religion was an interesting one to explore.

What Campos did not skimp on was the grimness, holy shit this film does not hold back on the darkness, it’s almost punishing how relentlessly dour the whole thing is, I can definitely see some people being turned off by it and I wouldn’t blame them but like I said earlier, I liked it, I liked that quite a few elements took me off-guard by going in an even darker direction than I expected – the Barn scene being one that makes your heart drop when it happens. But that’s the point of the story, we’re to see this horrible world through Arvin’s eyes, show every little piece that breaks him down to the point of snapping, we’re supposed to be disgusted by Lee’s corruption, we’re supposed to be horrified by Carl and Sandy’s killings – while never on-screen we do get enough from their souvenir photos and one scene with a castrated victim to be disturbed – and we’re supposed to be sickened by Teagardin’s hypocrisy. Pollock clearly meant for this story to be a foreboding and disturbing tale and I think Campos translated that to screen very well, utilizing some well-designed tension to slowly twist the knife whenever Arvin comes face-to-face with evil, the highlight being his confrontation in the church and his subtle ways of telling his adversary what he knows. Hearing that the book is even darker has just got me even more interested to see just how far down this story can take you on the road to it’s own person hell.

The Devil All The Time is not gonna be for everyone, even now writing this out myself  I’m picking up on a few more glaring faults in it’s multi-layered narrative than I realize. But despite that I’m still comfortable calling this one of the best film I’ve seen this year, the story is sprawling and disturbing with maybe a few too many villains but captures the violence and derangement of backwoods West Virginia very well, the acting from the whole ensemble was strong with Holland, Pattinson, Skarsgard and Keough all delivering layered and troubled performances that stood out and Antonio Campos literally taking Pollock’s own words and translating them to the screen for a pitch-black, soul-searing, heart-breaking tale of the evil that men do. It’s a hell of an experience and one I won’t forget about soon.

I am giving The Devil All The Time a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces !

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