The first thing you realize about the new Netflix drama The Devil All the Time is that it’s several smaller films in one, all of which eventually collide by the time it reaches its fateful destination. Adapted from the award-winning novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who does a beautiful job acting as narrator as well), the film covers rural culture in southern Ohio and West Virginia during the 1950s and ’60s and strives to teach us that the myth of idealized, small town America was something that was deeply corrupted by blind faith in politics, religion, morality, and the kindness of others. Those who are in power are the ones to be most suspicious of, and the resulting movie feels like a series of cautionary tales about what happens when you put your trust in others.
The film centers on two orphans, both of whom lose their parents when they are children. Living in West Virigina, Arvin (played at 9 years old by Michael Banks Repeta) is raised by his loving mother (Haley Bennett, Swallow) and deeply devout father (Bill Skarsgård, It), who begins to fall apart when his wife is dying of cancer. He believes prayer and even sacrifice (the family dog pays a heavy, violent price) will lead to a cure that never comes. Arvin’s father never recovers from her death, and before long, young Arvin is alone, with the local sheriff (Sebastian Stan) left to figure out the boy’s fate.
While this is happening, young Lenora’s parents—a preacher (Roy Laferty) and his new wife (Mia Wasikowska)—go for a drive and never return due to shocking circumstances I won’t recount here. Eventually, both of these children end up living with the same kindly older couple in Knockemstiff, Ohio, and are raised as older brother and younger sister. The film jumps ahead about 10 years, with Tom Holland now playing Arvin and Eliza Scanlen as Lenora. He is exceedingly protective of her, fending off bullies and escorting her on her ritual of visiting her mother’s grave every day after school. The whole family goes to church on Sundays, where a new preacher, Preston Teagardin (a gloriously, ultra-Southern Robert Pattinson) is settling in and befriending his new congregation in more ways than one.
In seemingly unrelated stories, Jason Clarke and Riley Keough portray a handsome couple who lure hitchhikers into their car, ply them with offers of lunch and liquor, and take photos of them in various stages of undress in compromising positions with Keough, just before they kill them and continue to take more photos of them as they die in abject terror. The route that they drive searching for victims just happens to connect the two towns where Arvin has lived, although he doesn’t come across them until late in the story. It turns out that Stan’s sheriff character is the brother of Keough, and although he has no idea what she’s a part of, he does worry that her reputation for being a bit wild threatens to ruin his political future.
Directed by Antonio Campos (Christine and Simon Killer, who also co-wrote with Paulo Campos), The Devil All the Time leans heavily into the more Southern Gothic aspects of its presentation and performances. I found it fascinating that most of the primary cast are non-Americans (primarily Brits and Aussies) playing these working-class folks with deep American accents, which must be a blast to acquire for actors from other lands. Holland is perfectly withdrawn and quiet for so much of the film that when he is driven to action, it’s shocking and unexpected. He’s a combination of angst, guilt and barely contained rage. Meanwhile, Pattinson is quite obviously living his best life as a sex-addicted preacher preying on young women (and sometimes underage girls) using his power of holy persuasion with these people who believe so deeply in God that they’d never believe for a second that he’d be capable of any wrongdoing. He uses a whiny voice that exudes something so inherently wrong in him as to be almost amusing if he weren’t such a monster.
Campos’ visual style is about noticing the details of every room, every stretch of woods and road, every rundown vehicle, and in a period piece, the details are that much more important in establishing a sense of time and place. By the time all of the storylines meet, we’re bracing ourselves for an explosion of violence or other bits of nastiness that admittedly, I wasn’t quite prepared for. I don’t fully understand the purpose of it all—outside of simply showing us a specific place as it existed between World War II and the Vietnam War—but the tactile performances and off-kilter, sweaty atmosphere make this a work that you can almost smell. It’s a bold step forward for the indie filmmaker, and I’m desperate to see what he brings us next.
The film opens theatrically today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and begins streaming on Netflix on September 16.
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