The Devil All the Time movie review: Netflix assembles brightest talent to buoy up its empty misery porn

Prahlad Srihari
·6-min read

Knockemstiff and its surrounding towns are the Devil's dominion. He hides behind their backwoods and backroads, in their log cabins, their motels and even their churches. Seemingly forsaken by God, these hollers of Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time, now a Netflix movie, are the kind of places you take a detour to avoid. The name itself could translate to "Enter at your own risk." So many degenerates swarm here, they didn't really bother on a tourism campaign. A spider-handling evangelist, a serial killer couple and a dirty cop are just a few of the degenerates who run through their beaten paths on an average Friday night.

In such places that reek of death, it's easy to forget the people simply trying to make a living, and fighting battles each day to stay alive. The paths to redemption for these good folks living on the fringes are limited. Nevertheless, they are unwilling to fold the poor hand they've been dealt. Like Tom Holland's Arvin Russell, who lives just across the Ohio-West Virginia border in Cold Creek, with his stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), Grandma Emma (Kristin Griffith), and Uncle Earskell (David Atkinson). You could call Arvin the protagonist, but a whole world with a certain lived-in authenticity takes centre stage in Antonio Campos's new film. Pollock's voiceover narration familiarises us with this '50s and '60s world of backwoods desperation, a world where everyone is susceptible to the devil's charms.

Tom Holland as Arvin Russell in The Devil All The Time.

To break the cycle of intergenerational misfortune and violence, Arvin becomes an unwitting vigilante, crossing paths with Knockemstiff and Cold Creek's most wicked. There's the new preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who abuses his position of power to prey on young women. There's the Hendersons, Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough), a husband-and-wife team of serial killers who lure and kill young hitchhikers to immortalise them in torture-porn photos. Then, there's Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), Sandy's brother trying to cover up their crimes. As Arvin's dad Willard (Bill Skarsgård) puts it, "there's a lot of no-good sons-of-bitches out there." In this world, violence is the only defense against violence.

The notion of the devil's ominpresence is not only literalised, but also allegorised. For example, the devil manifests itself in the form of a cancer corrupting Charlotte's body, pushing Willard into a vortex of sacrificial frenzy to save her. Still haunted by the war trauma of a crucified soldier he shot as an act of mercy, he turns to an Old Testament-style of prayer. With his son as witness, he sacrifices his pet dog in exchange for her life. She nonetheless succumbs to her illness, forcing him to make the ultimate sacrifice: himself. Lenora's father Roy (Harry Melling), the aforementioned spider-handling evangelist, sacrifices her mother Helen (Mia Wasikowska) to strengthen his bond with God. This illustrates Pollock's idea that being too religious is as dangerous as, if not more than, not being religious at all. Religion has been perverted to such an extent here the idea of God and death have become intertwined. Nowhere is this more evident than in Carl's case, who feels close to God only in the presence of death.

Indeed, restraint is not a virtue in this world, and not in Antonio Campos's adaptation either. He develops a faithful synopsis of Pollock's expansive work, but fails to put his auteurial stamp on the material. Reading the novel, you feel Willard's trauma as he relives his WWII ordeal, you are agitated by how preachers use faith to manipulate true believers, and you feel the desperation of a young man trying to escape his karma. Watching the movie, you don't. It wallows in man's moral decay, but has nothing interesting to say about it. If Pollock gives us a lyrical condemnation of humanity trapped in a cycle of violence, Campos reduces it to hillbilly horrors. The lyrical, often probing, prose is flattened to a pulpy mush.

Consider this sequence: Roy stabs his wife with a screwdriver to please God, and then desperately tries to resurrect her. He is himself then murdered by Carl. Sample this line: "Some people were born just so they could be buried." The Devil All the Time is misery porn at its bleakest. Humanity however emerges like a ray of sunshine breaking through the darkness that envelops this landscape. As reprehensible as they are, Sandy and Roy reveal some dignity buried beneath their devilish manners, or what Flannery O'Connor called "the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil." Roy thinks of his daughter moments before his death, and Sandy imagines a life without Carl's corrupting influence moments before her own. At the same time, Arvin reveals there's a dark side to his humanity. We see this when he brutally attacks the class bullies tormenting Lenora, and his wrath takes on a darker intensity in the climactic confrontation with Teagardin. Holland delivers his most compelling (and perhaps only?) dramatic turn since his breakout in The Impossible.

Scroll up to the cast section. Sit back in awe of the actors assembled. It's a pleasure, all too rare, to see such talent come together, and a pity to see them simply going through the paces. The screenplay can't get a grasp on Pollock's flavourful vernacular, and prevents them from finding the heartbeat underneath. So, it turns into a contest of "who can pull off the most convincing Southern accent?" Pattinson's syrupy drawl often tips over into caricature territory, but it's finger lickin' good enough for us to see him as the villain instead of a villain. He plays a man wholly committed to his sinister delusions, manipulating those around him according to his lustful desires. Some of the talent are underutilised, particularly Bennett, Wasikowska and Scanlen, whose roles are abridged to sacrificial lambs to move the story forward.

The Devil All the Time sinks in its self-seriousness, and the cast gets pulled into the quicksand with it. If the Coen Brothers find humour even in nihilism, Campos finds none, as these characters hurtle towards the edge of an amoral abyss. He mistakes length for depth €" and after over two hours of relentless misery, like the Dude might say, "it's exhausting."

The Devil All the Time is now streaming on Netflix.

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