‘The Devil All the Time:’ dangerous, dark and downright depressing

September 25, 2020

“The Devil All the Time” (dir. Antonio Campos) is a great movie about terrible people. In this adaptation of the Donald Ray Pollock book of the same title, the audience witnesses the chronicles of the lives of a ruthless set of characters living in mid-twentieth century Appalachian America. The film explores how the trauma of one generation can be passed down to another, ultimately leading to nothing but unhappiness.

We begin our story with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) who, after coming home from fighting in the Pacific, develops an obsession with his Christian faith. When his wife (Haley Bennett), whom he met after returning home from the war, develops cancer, his relationship with religion spirals further. He prays fervently under a makeshift crucifix and hits his nine year old son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta), when he doesn’t think his son is praying hard enough. He attempts to remedy his own fear of his wife’s health by shooting the family dog, thinking that an animal sacrifice would appease G-d. All the while, Arvin watches and absorbs his father’s undoing—and when Mrs. Russell passes away, Arvin comes across his father’s dead body. Willard had killed himself, leaving Arvin to the care of his grandmother and uncle. 

Meanwhile, we find other tragic and crooked lives intertwining with that of the Russell family: by the time Arvin arrives at his grandmother and uncle’s home, he meets his adopted sister, the sweet-faced Lenora Lafferty (Ever Eloise Landrum). Like Arvin’s, Lenora’s story is a disturbing one: Lenora’s father, a zealous pastor (Harry Melling), kills his wife (Mia Wasikowska), thinking that he was given the power to resurrect people. 

Years later, after a time skip, we find that both Arvin and Lenora have grown up: Arvin (Tom Holland), remembering his father’s own twisted relationship with religion, is skeptical of the notion of faith and prayer. Instead, he makes his family—and more specifically, his sister—his top priority. Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), however, grows to be a pious and kind young girl who, because of her innocence, is often bullied and threatened by the schoolboys. We find Arvin often waiting for Lenora outside the school, ready to either drive her away from the schoolboys or, on a different occasion, take to beating the boys. 

But Lenora knows a time will come when her older brother will no longer be able to take care of her. She takes to spending time with herself instead, often praying at her mother’s grave, and eventually, in her vulnerability and naivete, finds herself at the corrupt Reverend Preston’s (Robert Pattinson) door instead. True to the theme of the film, Reverend Preston is not at all the pious man that Lenora initially thinks him to be—and what happens next is the heartbreaking story of a young girl who gets manipulated by a man in power.

If you thought there was enough story in these two alone, you’re wrong. “The Devil All the Time” covers even more narratives, like the one of married couple Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke, Riley Keough), who spend their time picking up innocent hitch-hikers and, after killing them, take pictures of Sandy with their corpses, often posed as lovers. It’s noted that Sandy eventually struggles with what she’s doing, although she doesn’t quite know what to do with her situation. On top of that, we have yet another subplot of the corrupt Sheriff Lee (Sebastian Stan), who has a faint idea of what Sandy, his sister, is up to—but he doesn’t quite know the whole of the situation until too late.

Ultimately, this film covers a whole cast of characters who, in essence, are no good; the motifs of twisted religion loom over the film. At the end of the day, everyone is touched by a darkness that drives them to do awful things to one another. The only characters, perhaps, that don’t take to obvious violence or other common acts of “devilry” are Lenora and the grandmother, both of whom look to their faith as lights instead of areas of darkness. But even then, the movie delivers the somber message that that kind of light can eventually be extinguished. 

The film’s actual aesthetics only add on to the somber tone: with a 35mm camera and a washed-out beige tint to all the scenes, the audience is pulled right into the dreary Appalachian towns and carry with themselves a sense that something terrible might happen in a few minutes, if not now. These elements, added with the drawling, funereal narration provided by Donald Ray Pollock, ultimately makes the audience feel as though they, too, are stuck in a world in which they always see violence or some generational trauma peeking around the corner. 

In essence, this movie doesn’t pull its punches. Although the film covers a story as complex and as layered as a ten-episode series, the audience still gets a feeling of narrative completion, especially once the movie ends. Overall, the movie’s well-filmed with an all-star cast—just make sure you take a walk around a very sunny part of town when you’re done watching it. 

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