What constitutes being a good person? The lack of evilness could probably be an answer now. But what about during the post-World War times in lands suffused with poverty, pain, violence, and bleakness? When those with empty hands have nothing to hold on to, they raise them up high hoping for a miracle. When faith in humanity is lost, it’s natural to turn to an external force. That’s one way of seeing it. On the other hand, as a character sums it up, “There’s a lot of no good sons of b**ches out there.”
Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time is the journey of characters who are stuck in the crevasses caused by the severance of good and evil. Based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, the writer himself doubles up as narrator to introduce us to the towns of Coal Creek, West Virginia and Knockemstiff, Ohio. The Devil All the Time is an assemblage of stories that happen across two generations from the mid-40s to the 60s.
A war veteran suffering from PTSD turns to god when his wife gets cancer. That reliance on faith turns to fanaticism when she can’t be saved, leading him to sacrifice himself. On the other hand, a preacher sacrifices his wife because his god who “cured” him of arachnophobia, reassures him that can resurrect her. A new preacher, who is supposed to wash the village off its sins, ends up adding to it instead when he seduces and sexually assaults young girls. There’s also a serial-killing couple who target hitchhikers to take intimate photos with them before disposing of them.
The woman’s elder brother is a power-thirsty sheriff who is forced to cover up his sibling’s tracks. The Devil All the Time is a melancholic medley of the many forms of evils described in various religious texts. Amidst all this evil blooms a beautiful relationship between orphans Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) and Lenora Laferty (Eliza Scanlen), whose horrifying pasts make them bond as if they were actual siblings. As a man of action, Arvin stands up against evil — something he learnt from his late father. Lenora, meanwhile, is pure and soft, a god-fearing soul brimming with affection and innocence. When evil rears its ugly head both the patience of Arvin and the faith of Lenora are put to test and the aftermath is nothing short of life-changing.
Where director Campos’ skill comes through the most is in how he builds a scene. Having already proved himself with his previous film, Christine, the filmmaker convincingly takes us back in time. The lighting and the sets, along with the sound design, convey the mood well too.The film features a long list of talented actors and despite there being several situations where they could go overboard, not once is subtlety forgotten. Holland delivers a mature performance as a man moulded by a life he had very little control over. At the other extreme is Robert Pattinson’s Reverend Preston Teagardin.
Though having only a limited screen time, Pattinson really makes us feel his character’s depravity. Fellow Marvel star Sebastian Stan also shines as another face of evil. Though most of the rest of the characters unfortunately feel rushed and unidimensional, Riley Keough’s Sandy deserves a shoutout as the only female character with an arc as important as Arvin’s. Death feels like a character too, considering the number of forms and shapes it takes, right from murder to blunder, and how it’s always lurking close to those we root for. As one character laments, “Some people were born just so they could be buried.”
True to its name, The Devil All the Time is extremely dark and twisted. Tragedy is what makes the paths of several characters converge. It’s as if nothing good happens in that god-forsaken place. No wonder we get a sense of relief when a pivotal character contemplates enlisting to join the Vietnam War. The film also takes its time establishing the premise and the 138-minute runtime, filled with plenty of violence and gore, is a bit much to take. The narrative too shifts from non-linear to linear past the halfway mark making us wonder why the former was employed in the first place.
The underlying theme — how much faith is too much — is a brilliant one that the film could have explored a bit more. Considering The Devil talks about how banking on faith brings more evil than good, I wonder how an Indian remake would be welcomed. I suppose the answer would be similar to what Arvin endures when he figures out that beyond what constitutes good or evil, being alive is what matters the most.
Director: Antonio Campos
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough, Sebastian Stan, Eliza Scanlen
Streaming on: Netflix