“The Devil All the Time” is the excellent adaptation of the deliciously nasty and viciously grim novel from Donald Ray Pollock, who also narrates the film. This is the kind of southern pulp that grabs its audience by the hair and places them among the violent nature of its characters, all the while weaving a down-home gothic tale soaking in religiosity.
But this is far from the wistful “come to Jesus,” apple-pie, Sunday-picnic believers. This is Christianity at its darkest and most hypocritical. In this film, the word of the lord is spread through violence and rape and the blatant abuse of power. Though set in the fifties and sixties, this is a story that plays truly relevant to the distorted and more than askew Christian living of today.
Directed by Antonio Campos and co-adapted with his brother Paulo, “The Devil All the Time” is a labyrinthine film that follows many characters whose fates are defined by tragedy and violence.
Bill Skarsgard is Willard, a young man who returns to his small-town home in Ohio after fighting in WWII. Willard is a man who has been seriously changed by his time killing for his country. He meets a sweet waitress named Charlotte (a luminous Haley Bennett) while eating in the diner where she works. The two fall in love and end up getting married, starting a new life together that is far from blissful and haunted by tragedy.
During this same time, we meet a dangerous couple, played by two actors working at the top of their talents. Jason Clarke is Carl and Riley Keough (featured image) is Sandy. They also meet in a diner where she works as a waitress. Their relationship will not be based on love, it will exist as one of danger and twisted sexual obsessions. Carl like to photograph young men having sex with Sandy and then kill them, hoping to capture a purity in the moment.
While viewers may be left confused on the presence of Carl and Sandy’s storyline, its parallel existence to Willard and Charlotte’s cuts a path through the film that will find a gruesome symmetry by the finale.
The main character is Willard and Charlotte’s son Arvin, played as a young boy by Michael Banks Repeta and as a young man by Tom Holland, proving (as he did with his tremendous performance in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z”) that he is growing into an interesting character actor.
The underlying theme running through the film is how blind trust in religious authority figures and faith itself can leave one in a betrayal of the soul. Everyone feels they are doing the lord’s bidding in this film and each one finds tragedy and death in their misguided actions and in the decisions of those around them.
As it did so well in Pollock’s novel, the story moves back and forth through time with the author serving as narrator, his southern fried voice easing us through the dangerous world of these characters and riveting the audience in the Faulkneresque tale.
Amongst this bevvy of despair, there is also the characters of Roy and Theodore (Harry Melling and singer Pokey LaFarge, respectively) who are a strange pair where Roy’s desire to prove that he has the “power of the lord” flowing through him will have tragic consequences.
And, lest we forget, Sheriff Lee Bodecker (played very well by Sebastian Stan), whose affiliation with a local crime boss and blood relation to one of the main characters will lead to even more death.
Every character has a purpose in the scheme of things and the film’s greatest strength lies in its ability to weave it all together so seamlessly. Director Antonio Campos shows a real skill and confidence in his filmmaking here.
The director cuts a path through this ever so dark narrative by giving certain characters an inner light that shines through in their presentation. While everyone is touched by the devilish and no one gets away clean, a few have pure intentions. That certain characters have their souls muddied by violence, does not mean a few aren’t likeable. As with any human emotion, sometimes we are shocked and appalled by the violent acts; sometimes we find them a necessary comeuppance. It is interesting to imagine how, from scene to scene, the audience is finding their way to which side of that moral fence they wish to stand. The film forces this dichotomy onto his audience, putting us all into the moral contrasts of its characters.
Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s unobtrusive score is cloaked in a menace and foreboding that compliments but never overpowers the narrative flow while the filmmaker’s choices of traditional period Southern Faith songs (“Uncloudy Day,” “Are You Washed in the Blood,” and “Wings of a Dove,” among others) speak to the religious fury, both symbolic and literal, that flows within these people.
Lol Crawley’s cinematography is deliberate and does not try to paint beautiful impressions of the landscapes of Ohio and the Carolinas, as this story benefits from the somber visual tone set by him and by the director’s choice to shoot on 35mm film.
“The Devil All the Time” is a film of many sinners and few saints. As do we all, the righteous and the wicked coexist. In this story, all dwell in a house of sadness and misfortune and everyone will get their hands dirty.
This is the darkest vision of rural America that one can muster imagining and while I am not sure what the point is, Campos’s film is a visceral experience that adds much-needed fire to the ho-hum blandness of most modern American films.