Photo: ‘The Devil All the Time’/Netflix
The Devil All the Time Review: Without any apologies, director Antonio Campos thrusts his viewers into an eerie hellscape. Based on the dark novel The Devil All The Time written by Donald Ray Pollock, the film follows several members of two small Appalachian communities whose paths cross in unexpected and often unsettling ways. At the center of the intrigue is Tom Holland, who delivers a brave performance as Arvin, the resilient victim of childhood trauma and unfathomable anguish. As its twisted plot winds up and down the country roads between Ohio and West Virginia, this story illuminates the hypocritical hedonism of religious leaders and the brutality of war and poverty in mid-20th century America. Deluded by their deranged faith, many of the film’s characters perpetrate deplorable acts and then justify them as “God’s will”. As the morally destitute cast their shadows over the twin towns of Coal Creek and Knockemstiff, viewers are likely to feel their faith in humanity shaken.
Perhaps no character casts a longer shadow than Reverend Preston Teagardin, portrayed by Robert Pattinson. Pattinson, whose star continues to rise, displays remarkable versatility as a duplicitous southern preacher who takes a perverse delight in the devotion of his flock and the swindling of women without remorse. The vocal cadence he employs to illustrate this character is impressively fitting and captivating to watch. It almost comes as a sick surprise when he opens his mouth. Despite all this, one can’t help but be a little taken in by the hypnotic quality of Pattinson’s natural allure.
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On the opposite side of the same coin of righteousness is Willard Russell, played by a wide-eyed Bill Skarsgård. As Arvin’s war veteran father, Willard is determined to create a life of happiness for his family but seems to fall headfirst at the feet of fate’s misfortune. It’s hard not to empathize with him even when he clearly makes his way to the belly of the beast of wrongdoing. His intentions are not ill-willed, but his actions render all attempts of creating a peaceful life for his family insufficient when he forsakes accountability by relying too heavily on the will of God.
Experiencing a similar struggle is the preacher Roy Laferty, played by Harry Melling. Roy (another one of the film’s dubious preachers) falls into the same endless pit of faith-driven justifications for his violent behavior. Melling, best known to audiences as Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films, here exudes a Dudley-like lack of ownership over his own mind. Where Dudley lent his mind to the hands of his parents, Roy lends his hand to the supposed power of God.
After an elaborate prelude of a first act, which also introduces us to Sebastian Stan ( with a stellar performance as an ambitious sheriff), Jason Clarke and Riley Keough (as a couple who take their voyeur/exhibitionist lifestyle to disturbing extremes), this multi-layered narrative begins to catch fire. Traversing a web of tangled characters and multiple plots occurring simultaneously to our main storyline, Campos brings everything together like clockwork. The narrative’s preoccupation with the methodical unraveling of a small community is reminiscent of the works of Stephen King and The Coen Brothers, and Campos’ film earns this comparison as he seamlessly ties each fragment together with purposeful intent.
The Devil All the Time Review – A Peek Into Campos’ Hellscape
Imbued with colorful cinematography, shadows, dampened beige textures, and hellish hues, The Devil All The Time is a fully-realized vision in terms of landscape and artistic architecture. It is impeccably produced, featuring fantastic sets and sound design that engulf its viewers in a tonally somber atmosphere of delicate darkness. It’s quite gory, but in a way that feels almost poetic in nature. The jarring piano, violin, and bass undertones of the soundtrack create a sense of ominous omnipresence, filling viewers with suspense and dread. Musical transitions often vacillated from the unnerving score to smooth 50’s tunes, contributing to the overall sensation of madness. The gore was finely offset by many of these musical transitions too, increasing the dissociative sense of moral ambiguity.
The details Campos has included in his film are greatly appreciated, from the garish carpets to the stains on walls and clothes. They make the world of the film feel very lived-in, even as they tint that world with a discomforting gloom. The thickness of the air was viscerally visual, as were the characters’ greasy hairstyles and sweat-beaded foreheads (although this may also have been a by-product of the production’s shooting locations in Alabama, which stands in for West Virginia and Ohio). Still, it feels like a director’s choice not to polish away the muskiness.
Imagery and symbolism seem markedly prevalent throughout the story. Characters’ gazes often linger on an open flame, or on red-haired women, evoking the hellfire that supposedly awaits those who give in to their temptations. Dangling us over the edge of our primal fears, Campos incorporates rot and the buzzing of flies, taunting the audience with a grotesque sense of impending doom. In one particularly memorable scene, the preacher Roy Laferty makes the community’s web of despair literal and upends a bucket of spiders on his head. And then there’s his colorful sermon delivered by Roy, which includes the line,
“What is it you most afraid of? Hmm? Because if your worst fear is rats, well, Satan’ll make sure you get your fill of them. Brothers and sisters, you’ll see them eating away at you whilst you lay there unable to lift a single finger, and it will never cease.”
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The Biblical Doctrine of Predeterminism: God’s Will vs. Free Will
“Matthew? That’s from the Bible, ain’t it, Carl?”
“Everything’s from the Bible, honey. Hell, ol’ Matthew, he’s one of the Apostles.”
The punishments, sacrifices, and poetic tangles of sins and crimes are all fruitful manifestations of an intriguing parable of Biblical doctrine. The subtext and elegant orchestration of characters fatefully ending up in each other’s lives in unexpected ways feel analogous to the stories in the Bible, very notably concerning the ideas of predeterminism and destiny. The film plays on this notion in its dialogue and throughout the plot, suggesting the possibility that our nature is already preordained, and all events and actions are driven by something beyond human comprehension.
In a perversion of messianic expectations, the film’s narrator mentions how the villainous Rev. Preston Teagardin’s mother essentially chose his life as a Preacher for him. Meanwhile, Tom Holland’s character, who abhors prayer and displays of piety, comes across as almost Christ-like in his condemnation of false prophets and hypocrisy. Early in the film, two waitresses are basically plucked out of Eden by their respective Adams and led onto two very different life trajectories. The innocent Lenora, played by Little Women’s lovely Eliza Scanlen, seems to be almost prophetically drawn towards a fate similar to that of her mother.
Were these characters just vessels of some divine will? Perhaps some actions only seem nefarious to the human mind and its limited understanding of morality. Or maybe we are the manifesters of our own destiny, carving our life with each decision and action. Maybe there are unconsidered algorithms burrowed in our DNA that facilitate a great deal of our impulses but we choose which ones to follow. Would it change anything? Whether these characters’ actions were involuntarily dictated or not, it’s still just as grim and unsettling. It’s hard to condemn yourself or others if you operate on the premise that everything you do is already predetermined. It blurs the lines between good and evil. When we fail to manufacture a functional ethical landscape, it creates a complicated formula of conduct where no one can be held accountable for their sins. It creates a devil, all the time.
“Some people were born just so they could be buried.” – Donald Ray Pollock
The Devil all the Time is available to stream on Netflix.
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