Bleak, mean and violent, this slow burning period drama is a terrifying look at intergenerational trauma, and has the makings of a cult classic
Antonio Campos’ southern gothic, The Devil all the Time, based on Donald Ray Pollock’s eponymous novel, plumbs the depths of the macabre in rural America over the course of two decades – beginning with a haunting farewell to the Second World War and ending with a casual nod to the interminable Vietnam War. A compelling intersection of faith and violence, the Netflix thriller follows two dozen characters who find God in senseless mutilations, and chase short-lived bliss in fanaticism.
Willard, a World War II soldier, finds a crucified marine, barely breathing, left to die by the Japanese in the Solomon Islands. As an act of mercy, he shoots the dying marine –an image laced with violence and the finality of death, which he then carries back home with him.
Did the marine die, nailed to the cross, to save Willard, as Jesus did for the rest of us? In that case, Willard’s life came at great cost, and war instilled a permanent sense of loss in him, as if nothing good would ever last. When his wife dies, his suspicion is confirmed. Believing that he did not pray hard enough to save the love of his life, he kills his son’s dog and shoots himself in the head after having fought in life, as his son Arvin would later say, ‘the devil all the time.’
Arvin grows up with his grandmother in a godless land, populated by god-fearing men, who willingly or unwillingly invite one catastrophe after another. Now a fully-grown man, Arvin’s days are marked by confrontations with revival preachers who rape and murder women in their perverse search for enlightenment, serial killers who claim to have found the divine in their victims’ final breaths, and policemen who have no regard for justice. Arvin, who inherited his father’s pain as well as his sins, has to fight for the good that his father died believing was irreversibly lost.
In this post-war thriller, the air is heavy with a generalized pessimism, evidenced by the characters’ constant distrust of all institutions, be it the church or the law of the land. Preachers and policemen are unveiled as nothing but moral hypocrites. No one comes to the rescue of characters in need, because it is a world gone to the dogs, where you are either a villain or a victim.
Compos’ film features a star-studded cast, letting several A-listers reinvent themselves with their gripping performances. Robert Pattinson plays, arguably for the first time in his career, an irremediably malicious character of a perverted new preacher in town.
The Lighthouse star sounds sinister with an insane, high-pitched southern accent, and looks unrecognizable with his pot belly, riding around in a flashy car, preying upon underage girls. Sebastian Stan from the Marvel universe, and Bill Skarsgård, known for playing Pennywise in the It franchise, respectively, play a crooked sheriff and a PTSD-ridden soldier, gracefully stepping out of their comfort zones.
Harry Melling, remembered as the insufferable cousin of Harry Potter, plays a hillbilly preacher, who pours spiders on his face as part of his sermon. Tom Holland, the Spider-Man star, is our protagonist Arvin, battling evil forces in a superbly-delivered, thoughtful performance.
In many ways, this latest Netflix thriller looks like a love child of Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Derek Cianfrance’s, The Place beyond the Pines, where unbridled violence meets unresolved daddy issues. And interestingly enough, it ends up embracing both luck and fate as two driving forces in life – essentially two contrary ideas that aspire to rationalize why certain things happen. Bringing to mind True Detective character Rust Cohle’s fatalistic ‘Time is a flat circle’ rant, The Devil All the Time offers a frightening glimpse into life’s endless repetition.
Shrouded in a fog of despair, the film manages to have some rare hope-drenched moments nonetheless - when a teenager shares his wish to leave home in a typically melancholy tone, when love is miraculously found in post-war hellscape, when sons learn to forgive their fathers, and a mother stares upward at the sky in wonder and gratitude. But just as Willard firmly believed nothing good would ever last, director Compos also stays true to the film’s grim source material, deftly capturing booming hateful sermons drowning out the film’s fleeting quiet moments, and crushing innocence at every opportunity in this compelling cinematic indictment of organized religion. Given the relentlessly bleak state of our world right now, it is no wonder that The Devils All the Time has been described as an acquired taste.