The Devil All the Time abandons any meaningful Southern Gothic tradition or thematic complexity in favor of base misery.
Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time is nearly impossible to digest; it’s a film so tonally incoherent, so determined to rub the audience’s nose in miserable sex and violence, that it becomes first disagreeable, then unpalatable, and, finally, simply ludicrous. It’s cartoonishly dour, and while a game cast tries to match sensibility with such lugubrious material, the film ultimately stands as a testament to its own self-importance, a litany of clichés grasping at profundity. We begin in 1945, during WWII, as soldier Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) stumbles across a crucified man who’s been left for dead by enemy forces. With a looming cross and a scalped, blood drenched body, The Devil All the Time loudly announces both its ham-fisted approach to symbolism and its preference for sadistic bodily harm — abandon all subtlety ye who enter. In 1948, Willard returns home from the war and marries Charlotte (Haley Bennett); they have a son, Arvin (played in flashbacks by Michael Banks Repeta and as an adult by Tom Holland). They go to church with Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska), who, in 1950, marries an unstable preacher named Roy Laferty (Harry Melling) and has a daughter named Lenora (played in flashbacks by Ever Eloise Landrum and as an adult by Eliza Scanlen). There’s a lot of narrative shoe leather spent setting all of this up, which amounts to a long prologue that takes up the first 40 minutes of the film. Campos deftly juggles all the characters and timelines, and if it all feels a bit much, at least it’s briskly paced.
By 1957, Charlotte will die of cancer, while Willard commits suicide. Roy murders his wife, believing he can resurrect her, and goes on the run when he realizes his error. He crosses paths with a pair of travelling serial killers (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke), first glimpsed back in the 1948-set scenes, who pick up hitchhikers and then murder them. And finally, there’s corrupt sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), first seen as a young patrol cop in 1957, who is connected to the traveling killers and who takes on more sinister importance later in the film. Young Arvin and young Lenora eventually wind up with Willard’s mother, Emma (Kristin Griffith), and the rest of the film takes place in 1965 and beyond. There’s a lot going on here, mostly involving unstable men and the violence they perpetuate against women. Arvin spends much of his time protecting Lenora from bullies, while she spends most of her time praying and visiting her mother’s grave. Lenora eventually falls under the sway of smooth-talking preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson, destabilizing the entire movie whenever he’s on screen through sheer force of will). All of this is based on a novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who also provides the voice over narration for this film adaptation. It’s a major miscalculation, as Pollock’s omniscient narrator manages to over-explain an already incredibly unsubtle movie, while also setting in place a jaunty, almost jocular tone that is entirely at odds with all of the misery bathing the screen. And what misery! There are multiple suicides, murders, shootings, statutory rape, ritual animal sacrifice, and too many brutal beatings to count.
Campos has made interesting films in the past, but there was no indication in Afterschool or Simon Killer that he would be suitable for this kind of large-scale drama, with a sizeable cast involved in multiple interlocking storylines that span two generations. Indeed, Campos’ early work was constructed on the interiority of individuals, where plot took a backseat to sustained mood and a coherent, sharply-defined sensibility. A central mis-marriage, then, is that The Devil All the Time is all plot; it somehow manages to be both terribly busy and very boring. There’s no ebb and flow, just long stretches of drab drama punctuated by bursts of violence; this much pain and suffering should elicit something in a viewer other than indifference. It rankles because Campos clearly thinks he’s expressing something profound, but has instead merely confused shock value with insight. This slice of Southern Gothic isn’t Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, or even the gutter poetry of Jim Thompson — there’s no danger, no disruption of form, nothing to really unsettle. The notion that the idealized 1950s were actually a hotbed of illicit, immoral activity is decidedly old news, and Campos doesn’t have a feel for genre’s ambience or any idea how real working-class southerners look or sound. The film is bookended by two wars — the specter of WWII that haunts Willard and the looming threat of Vietnam which threatens to swallow up Arvin. There’s something there, in the idea that a country’s history of sanctioned violence would trickle down to and be refracted through its citizenry. But like much of The Devil All the Time, it’s an idea that goes unexplored as the film instead focuses exclusively on banal, empty signifiers. What a waste of talent.
You can currently stream Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time on Netflix.