Review: THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, Post-war Pulp Haunts Compelling Rural Noir
Antonio Campos weaves an epic tale of evil and karmic redemption, with Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough and more playing truly twisted characters.
Antonio Campos excels at making damaged or heinous characters front and centre, getting under the skin of a socio-psychopath (Afterschool, 2008 or Simon Killer, 2012) or delving into mental health issues and depression (Christine, 2016), Campos finds entertaining ways to portray very difficult topics. Working on equally compelling television (The Sinner, 2017) he returns with his latest feature in four years, The Devil All The Time, masterfully adapted from author and film’s narrator Donald Ray Pollock.
Directorial efforts on the small screen have certainly paid off here, as his latest is a satisfyingly complex weave of disturbed killers, sinners and memorable characters played by a stellar cast. The razor-sharp character focus inherent in his other films is broadened into a twisted tapestry, and his adaptation of this generation spanning rural noir is no less thrilling or sublime.
It is nineteen fifty six in Knockemstiff Ohio where the seeds are planted for this tale of generational trauma and karmic resolution; where fate decides when an eye is for an eye. In this uncanny place of repression and loneliness The Devil All The Time focuses on a handful of recurring characters, particularly the Russell family. After a series of tragedies involving both parents Willard (Bill Skarsgård) and Charlotte (Haley Bennett), young Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) is sent to live with Uncle and Grandmother by Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan). Here he develops a bond with adopted sister Lenora Laferty (Eliza Scanlen) whose own mother Helen (Mia Wasikowska) was murdered.
Elements of that crime tie the deranged killer couple Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough) to this story. It is both then and ten years later where matters from the past are finalized, what propels this dramatic resurfacing is Arvin’s values, doggedly protecting Lenora, desperate to do right. He is pushed to the limits of exposing his violent tendencies when slimy selfish sex-fiend preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) causes a string of events that loop back to the horrors of ten years prior.
The story begins even before this. Arvin's father Willard is a soldier and the wartime atrocities he witnesses drives him to obsessively atone, the pillar he builds where he aggressively prays with young Arvin takes on significant meaning, an illicit church or totem in the forest, a cursed place that will be returned to for a profane sacrifice.
The Post-war trauma and violence is carried over to the next generation both literally and metaphorically, as Arvin comes of age and receives his father's German Luger pistol as a gift. Lenora’s mother finds trouble with a crazed man of faith, and years later her daughter is also threatened by a sinister 'holy' presence. The Sheriff, now running for mayor, has a backlog of corruption and local organised crime involvement that would fill a season of Fargo. The Henderson couple are up to the double digits with their “road trips”, and what they entail is pure evil, smartly presented and revealed at the right time as to never feel gratuitous. These decade-apart coincidences in The Devil All The Time are not hamfisted, they are elegantly considered, obsessively so and when the characters cross paths it feels right.
The difference ten years makes certainly shows in the production value, the vintage detail is comprehensive, with clean and crisp cinematography that soaks it all in, cleverly composed, with meaningful and measured camera work. The era and day-to-day life paint the tone of each scene, the radio announces something about the Vietnam war as Lenora visits her mother's grave, the cemetery framed with a stark window, the vicious shadow of the preacher looking on. The film is downright brutal in parts, but Antonio Campos is an old-hand when it comes to maximising the cause and effect of detailed graphic violence. Cathartic beat-downs and other moments are accompanied by period era music, the editing and impact of the scene with the sound is close to Scorsese levels of mastery.
Criminals that have it coming, devils that are given their due are juxtaposed with vigilante justice in a forest of nihilistic characters that toe the line between dramatic and pulpy.. Robert Pattinson is simply skin crawling as the dangerously charismatic preacher, and although Preston Teagardin is admittedly an epic name he is an unforgivable, selfish and greedy villain. He is willing to take advantage of the weak, poor and young while simultaneously denigrating their generosity. One scene in specific with Lenora in his chapel is spine chilling thanks to his line delivery resulting in one of the most off-putting spoken film moments of the year. This is also appropriately the catalyst for the violence to follow. The desperation, fear mongering and preaching stirs and agitate the delusional and traumatised characters, all of them share a different connection to a higher power, but it is fate and karma that defines the harsh results of their actions in Knockemstiff.
The specifics of this aptly named region is expertly guided by the original author and former resident who provides his unique vocals to the sparse narration that hits at the exact right moment. Although the novel is inspired by the writer's experiences, Director Antonio Campos instills in each scene a sense of emptiness and vague dread that is key to his style. The thick lush forests and isolated buildings surrounded by savagery and pitch black nothingness.
The Devil All The Time takes on many forms; a compelling meditation on carrying the past, a fragmented crime anthology with shockingly evil bad guys, and a detailed slice of life Americana. Its nineteen-fifties prelude is already two mini-movies worth, and the shifting focus between the characters across greater Ohio naturally converges back to where it all began in Knockemstiff.
With The Devil All The Time, there is still hope to be found in this cycle of pain and hurt. Arvin is to make right with his past and live for the future. Donald Ray Pollock as narrator punctuates each key moment as his pages come to life, but Antonio Campos and brother Paulo ensure their bullet-proof screenplay pushes the conflict to its bloody conclusion and leaves little to question.
The Devil All The Time premieres on Netflix globally on September 16.