Amid the sparse slate of films released during the fall of last year, many movies were pushed straight to streaming platforms. There, they were hidden amongst rows of other features in a digital compendium, almost destined to be overlooked. One such gem from Netflix went virtually unnoticed by most movie fans, but it definitely deserves its time in the spotlight.
“The Devil All the Time” is a Southern Gothic drama from director Antonio Campos, based on Donald Ray Pollock’s eponymous novel. After its release on Sept. 16 of last year, the film received mixed feedback from critics (it garnered a whopping 64% on Rotten Tomatoes), with some citing the movie’s incredibly dark plotlines as being excessively violent and without purpose. However, grim as it may be, “The Devil All the Time” is a powerful slow burner that leaves the audience with lasting thoughts on the human experience.
The film begins with the story of Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) returning from duty at the end of World War II, still tormented by the atrocities he witnessed in the Pacific. As he adapts to life back in the states, Willard is plagued by the image of a U.S. soldier crucified on the battlefield. Despite this, he manages to regain his faith and find a lovely wife, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), with whom he has a son. Years later, Willard’s wife is diagnosed with cancer, driving him to bargain frantically with God to save her. Willard’s prayers and sacrifices go unanswered as his wife loses her battle with the disease, and in his agony Willard gives up his fight as well.
From there, the plot jumps forward eight years into a complex web of stories which weave in and out of each other until they all come crashing together in the final act. We meet a sordid sundry of characters, each with their own unsavory agendas: there’s the corrupt sheriff (Sebastian Stan), the delusional revivalist (Harry Melling), the murderous swingers (Jason Clarke, Riley Keough) and the predatory preacher (Robert Pattinson). And smack dab in the middle of it all is Arvin (Tom Holland), Willard Russell’s grown son who is trying to escape the traumas of his childhood while navigating the depravity of the other characters.
There are few happy moments in the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime, and while the movie is undeniably dark, it is this very darkness which reveals the work’s true meaning. “The Devil All the Time” explores the consequences of faith in a fallen world, where the faithful and the faithless are punished alike: the faithful being preyed upon by the faithless, and the faithless succumbing to their vices in one way or another. Arvin seems to be the only one in the film to recognize this bleak fact of life, and ultimately he is better off for it. As he grows older, Arvin sees that the only way to rise above the evil of the world is to fight it himself.
Another weighty motif in the movie is the idea of fate. It’s understandable to think that God is absent throughout the film since the characters receive no helping hand to ease their myriad troubles. However, there is simply a different kind of ‘God’ at play. The story suggests that life is a series of orchestrated coincidences; each time the characters cross paths, it is seemingly because they are fated to do so by the consequence of their actions. It begs the question: Are we all fixed on a path, destined by fate to repeat the sins of our forebears, or can we escape the cycle of violence to build a brighter future?
In addition to Campos’ masterful storytelling, the film excels in nearly every other way. The performances in the film are riveting to say the least, particularly Tom Holland’s role as Arvin. With a cast consisting of stars from all over the globe (England, Australia, Sweden), Campos manages to craft performances which feel surprisingly authentic to the film’s rural Rust Belt setting. Even Pattinson’s striking Southern accent, cartoonish to some, is true to his character’s overblown self-image.
Occasional commentary from a narrator (author Donald Ray Pollock) is included throughout the film, perhaps as a nod to the movie’s literary roots. Unlike other movies where voiceover is sometimes used as a cheap cop-out to relay exposition, the device’s use in “The Devil All the Time” serves to enrich the overall narrative style and tie the stories together.
“The Devil All the Time” stretches across decades and state lines, providing viewers with heavy notions of faith and fate. Though not for the faint of heart, this sprawling tale is most certainly worth the watch for those viewers in search of something to mull over.
“The Devil All the Time” is available to stream on Netflix.