“Some people were born just so they can be buried,” is the haunting line from Sebastian Stan that perfectly sums up the panoply of misdeeds and deranged retribution in The Devil All the Time. Directed by Antonio Campos, the film depicts how misery longs for company in this inescapable realm of gothic-tinged psychological thrills.
The Devil All the Time might not appeal to most, but much like gossip, we can’t help but give it our full attention. Its direness will cling to your consciousness long after the lights come on.
Waging war from within is taken literally in this film adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name. Beginning with a sympathetic view of a soldier from World War II, the film seemingly centres on Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), capturing the image of a PTSD, guilt-ridden man who fears that God no longer hears him.
After witnessing a live crucifixion in the Solomon Islands, Russell pleads to a wooden cross deep in the woods, a portal to bury his trauma. From there, we watch as Russell’s psyche spirals in moments of danger and grief, changing the trajectory of the once linear plot.
The eeriness intensifies after Russell’s son, Arvin (Tom Holland), receives his father’s gun, the one wedded in misfortune for torturing his father’s mind. Willard failed to teach his son much but did advocate justice through vengeance. In the Midwest town of Knockemstiff, this justice is paramount.
Soon the film spirals into multiple individual tales as characters become entangled with the Russell family. Among them, the corrupt cop Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), his villainess sister Sandy (Riley Keough), a serial killer named Carl (Jason Clarke), and Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), a lascivious preacher whose sermons illustrate his own brutal hypocrisy.
Mia Wasikowska and Eliza Scanlen also enter the narrative as victims of the tale’s unfortunate events, solidifying the idea that men adopt religion with a blind vengeance, and women adopt religion with deadly conformity. The film chronicles how faith and evil intertwine through the 20 years of crime and deceit that only partially correct the evilest wrongdoings, leaving trails of blood wherever the characters go, until they meet tragically in the crooked sheriff’s car.
In The Devil All the Time, religion is a mercurial high that eventually hits rock bottom. It’s a story of people who misconstrue the guidance of God to feel acceptance, manipulating other’s beliefs and twisting their lives to emanate that connection. While Preston Teagardin flirts in a high-pitched accent, his insecurities run deep when he meets the vengeful Arvin. Channelling his inner-Spiderman vigilante and plagued by the misdeeds of the townspeople, Arvin confronts Teagardin with the haunting line, “Excuse me, preacher. You got time for a sinner?”
The misfortunes of the Russell family are so painstakingly frequent that they become laughable. Due to the movie’s expansive scope, there was little time spent developing many characters. As the kill count increases, so does our confusion. We’re left searching for its relevancy in the film’s overreaching plot, the one strung together by the wind of Campos’ rapacious imagination.
As we jump from one character to the next, the story feels unavoidably episodic and never overcomes this misery. It’s tempting to say that the storyline would’ve succeeded better as a mini-series, where the characters could better convey the sprawling drama that’s rippling under the surface.
All-in-all, this movie throws predictability out the window, while its production exudes the feeling of a future cult-classic. With cheery music strumming in the most unacceptable of times and eerie whispers haunting the most light-hearted scenes, the viewer is gripped by these mysterious undertones. The Devil All the Timereligiously tiptoes between being absorbing and unbearable as characters seek God’s forgiveness for their sins.
And despite opportune times to reassure connections with their faith, they all slip into their devilish tendencies—their devilish tendencies all the time.