Devil All the Time, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/16/20 10:32:27
With its sprawling narrative that covers two states, two generations and multiple storylines suffused with sex, violence, murder, suicide, the sins of the past and present and a wide array of seemingly disparate characters who all wind up tying together in some way or another, “The Devil All the Time,” Antonio Campos’s adaptation of the Donald Ray Pollack novel resembles nothing so much as a low-rent and increasingly ludicrous southern-fried take on Fifties-era soap operas like “Peyton Place,” though it is unimaginable that it could have gotten away with even a fraction of the lurid miseries that it unleashes on viewers over the course of its extended and ultimately punishing 138-minute running time.Beginning at the end of WWII, the story opens as Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) returns home from the war—naturally haunted by his experiences—and immediately falls in love with diner waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett), much to the chagrin of Willard’s devout mother (Kristin Griffith), who promised God that he would marry local tragic orphan Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska). Willard and Charlotte marry, have a son named Arvin and move to the colorfully named (though evidently real) town of Knockemstiff, Ohio (which sounds more like a location from a Preston Sturges movie, but never mind), where they share nine years of bliss before Charlotte is stricken with terminal cancer. Having gradually found himself back in a religious frame of mind, the hysterical Willard becomes convinced that God will cure her if he and Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) pray hard enough and even offers a grisly sacrifice to show he means business. It doesn’t take, of course, and before very long, Arvin finds himself an orphan.
While Willard and Charlotte are having their story, over in the slightly less flamboyantly named town of Coal Creek, West Virginia, Helen has married Roy (Harry Melling), a fundamentalist preacher who likes to demonstrate how the Lord cured his fear of spiders by pouring a jar of them over his head. After spending several weeks in a closet after suffering a spider bite on the face, Roy feels a new connection with God that he decides to test with the unwitting aid of Helen. This goes even worse than the spiders on the face and Roy finds himself on the lam until he is picked up by Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), whose first meeting way saw occurring at the same time and in the same diner as the first encounter between Willard and Charlotte. Unfortunately, they are a pair of serial killers who pick up hitchhikers and take them in the woods so that Carl can photograph them having sex with Sandy before murdering them. Willard’s mother winds up taking in Helen and Roy’s now-orphaned daughter, Lenora, and she is there when Arvin is sent to live with them.
A few years pass and the now teenaged Arvin and Lenora (now played by Tom Holland and Eliza Scanlan) are practically inseparable—she is a shy and vulnerable girl who visits her mother’s grave every day and he, using the lessons imparted by his late father, administers brutal beatdowns to the school bullies who pick on her. However, real trouble soon arrives in the form of the town’s new preacher, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). During a town potluck dinner to honor his arrival, Teagardin throws low-key shade on the comparatively humble plate of chicken livers that Arvin’s grandmother has brought, humiliating her and enraging him. However, Lenora, much like her mother before her, feels something for this man of God and the results of this are inevitably cruel and tragic and inspire Arvin to once again tap into his darker and more violent side. Oh yeah, Carl and Sandy are still out there doing their thing—protected from exposure by her brother (Sebstian Stan), a corrupt local sheriff with political ambitions of his own and, as unlikely as it sounds, they even wind up playing a key role in the events to follow.
Having not read the original novel by Pollock, I cannot rightly say how all of this plays out but my guess is that on the page, the story and characters have more room to breath and readers are less inspired to wonder how two small towns could inspire so many lurid crimes involving the same people over the space of a couple of decades. Compressed to a 138-minute running time that is simultaneously way too short and entirely too long, the whole thing becomes little more than an abject wallow in misery that is so overblown that it is constantly teetering on the edge of self-parody. To be fair, Campos, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Paulo, seem to be trying for the same combination of bleak fatalism and jet-black humor that the Coen Brothers deployed in such films as “No Country for Old Men” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The difference is that in those films, the Coens at least seemed interested in their characters as they moved them towards their inevitable fate while the Campos’s see theirs as nothing more than stick figures that they take perverse glee in mercilessly destroying without giving us any reason to care about either their lives or deaths or offering up any sort of notion other than to observe the corrupting force of religion, a notion that it makes over and over without any accompanying insight By the end of the film, it becomes abundantly clear that there is no real point to any of this, although the film does impart an endless omniscient narration (supplied by Pollock himself) in the manner of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” in an increasingly desperate attempt to suggest otherwise.“The Devil All the Time” is little more than patently absurd horseshit that plays like the kind of stuff one might have found at the bottom of Flannery O’Connor’s trash basket and as its litany of woes and misfortunes goes on (and on and on), I found myself struggling to understand what it was about this nonsense that could have possibly attracted the interest of its admittedly top-flight cast. Unfortunately, all of them have been given collections of broad behavioral tics to play instead of characters and struggle unsuccessfully to make something plausible of them. The only performance that does work, after a fashion (or possibly several Old Fashioneds) is the admittedly singular one turned in by Robert Pattinson, who is evidently the only one to realize that he has somehow found himself in what is little more than this generation’s “Hurry Sundown” and offers up a hilariously cartoonish turn that comes complete with a Southern accent unlike any that has ever been spoken in real life. It is much too little and much too late to come close to saving the film from its case of terminal lunacy but at least during the scenes when he is front and center, you get the brief sense that there is someone else out there who shares your sense of disbelief at this whole shabby enterprise.
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