By Peg Aloi
This may be the year’s best ensemble cast, and that goes a long way toward making this multilayered melodrama accessible and compelling.
The Devil All the Time, directed by Antonio Campos. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema.
Based on the bleak and powerful novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who also narrates with a thoughtful voice-over), this example of modern Southern Gothic is haunting and engaging. Adapted for the screen by Paulo Campos and directed by Antonio Campos (whose works as a producer include The Eyes of my Mother and Martha Marcy May Marlene), The Devil All the Time is beautifully executed and very disturbing. The story follows a number of disparate characters in two rural communities in the years between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Vietnam War. The casting is first rate, with a slate of skilled actors who all somehow look and behave with realistic grit. Despite the star quality lent by the likes of Robert Pattinson, the movie is grounded in authentic performances. A hefty number of characters makes it confusing at times to figure out how everybody is connected, but the film deftly weaves these plot arcs together.
The film begins in 1957, and then flashes back to just after the war. The time shifts are clearly indicated, with the back and forth underscoring the dark occurrences in a pair of small, deeply poverty-stricken towns in southern Ohio and West Virginia. Compulsory churchgoing cements the troubled communities together, but also generates its share of conflicts. When first we meet young Arvin Russell, he is praying with his father Willard, played by Bill Skarsgård (who was amazing in the first season of Castle Rock), kneeling at a makeshift crucifix in the forest. Arvin is bullied in school, and his father, struggling to make ends meet, does his best to teach his son to be tough.
We flash back to Willard’s return from the war in 1944, a shy young man whose pious mother Emma (Kristin Griffith) lives with his uncle Earskell. She encourages him to marry the equally pious Helen (Mia Wasikowska, in a rather mousy role). Despite loving his mother deeply, Willard is uninterested in Emma’s steadfast religious devotion. Besides, he has eyes for Charlotte, the pretty waitress at the diner. Helen, meanwhile, is drawn to the fiery young preacher Roy Laferty. Played by Harry Melling (of the “Meal Ticket” episode of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Roy is an intense young man whose devotion to God borders on the delusional. Willard gets to know Charlotte (Swallow’s Haley Bennett) and we soon see how Willard’s young family came to be.
There’s a momentary flash forward to 1957 again, when Helen and Roy’s baby daughter Lenora is left with Emma and Earskell while Helen and Roy go for a picnic in the woods. The voice-over tells us that Helen is not seen again until her body is discovered buried in those woods, seven years later. Baby Lenora is brought to live with Emma and Earskell. Seven years later, a time period that repeats in the narrative (like the cycles of an ancient curse), Arvin is left orphaned and goes to live with his grandmother Emma, and becomes Lenora’s stepbrother. The two erstwhile siblings grow close and look out for each other.
Meanwhile, the local sheriff’s beautiful sister Sandy (The Lodge‘s Riley Keogh, in a juicy role) is married to Carl (Chappaquiddick’s Jason Clarke), a sociopathic monster. The two carry on a decades-long killing spree in which they pick up male hitchhikers (often soldiers just returned from the war), take erotic photos of them, and murder them. The killers of the dead men remain a mystery for years. Their disappearances tend to raise few eyebrows: the soldiers were returning from war and they had not yet established their place in the community. There is something elegiac about their loss, their innocence, their seemingly inescapable end stop. Decades of war form an effective backdrop for this story of loss, an ominous reminder of the fragility of coming-of-age in a country where youth is full of promise yet quickly expendable.
Loss of innocence and senseless violence are the central pattern in this narrative, playing out as the years pass. There’s a sense that there is no way to escape the cruelty and guilt that seems part and parcel of a devout Christian legacy. As teenagers, Arvin (Spider-Man’s Tom Holland) and Lenora (Eliza Scanlen, whose previous roles in Little Women and Babyteeth show a young actress at the top of her game) have to struggle with a succession of brutes at school. Arvin solves his problems with violence, despite being a kind and quiet young man; Lenora visits her dead parents’ graves and prays a lot.
When a charismatic preacher (Robert Pattinson, in a film-stealing performance) arrives in the parish, everyone is captivated. Despite his boorish behavior at the welcoming church supper — he humiliates Emma for making a dish that reflects her modest means — he is admired for both his good looks and his impassioned sermons. His presence in the community turns lives upside down, especially Lenora, who seeks his counsel about her ongoing grief at being left an orphan. Eventually, Arvin is forced to confront the preacher to talk about his inappropriate behavior. He finds himself on the run, and in the path of the serial killers Sandy and Carl.
If it all seems a bit melodramatic, it is. But there is also sobering plausibility here, the actions of very desperate people. There are horrific acts of violence, some sudden and senseless, some righteous and redemptive. Also, this may be the year’s best ensemble cast, and that goes a long way toward making this multilayered story accessible and compelling. Yes, there may be a bit too much going on for too long, but there is never a moment in The Devil All the Time that, for me, does not feel genuinely and indelibly human. I found myself recalling characters’ words and faces, curious about their fates, yearning to know their futures. This is a historical drama that scrolls across the years, arriving again and again at points where lives and choices intersect, crucial moments that explode with possibility, or finality.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.