Director: Antonio Campos
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough, Tom Holland
The Southern States and the lineage of the American Gothic continue to attract creatives. Often the stories set among the forests of the Appalachian hills cleave close to the mythos of the American outlaw and also the roiling temperament of Man, and that nub of evil down inside. From the prose of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, through so many backwoods horror movies; the land is ripe and awfully mean. God-fearing, but forsaken.
Antonio Campos’ latest, new to Netflix, delves into this outer dark, following in the footsteps of so many. This West Virginian tale – adapted from the book by Donald Ray Pollock – features a prominent narration from the author himself, dictated in the kind of wry drawl one might associate with a Coen Brothers cut. Yet in all other matters, Campos’ film shows little comparative spark. The Devil All the Time feels like the adaptation of a novel. It’s mandate is slow and steady, thumbing through chapters, as handsomely mounted as an HBO miniseries. Or a Netflix one for that matter. Photographed in a fashion fit for the big screen but confined to the small, it winds up with the feel of commonplace prestige TV, of having been reduced in size by its method of distribution.
Post-war malaise sweeps over the township of Knockemstiff as various families and misdeeds intersect over a period of years. Campos zips back and forth from the late ’40s to ’60s. Though Bill Skarsgård takes much of the early screen time as returning veteran Willard Russell, Tom Holland’s turn as his quick-tempered son Arvin will likely garner more attention, if only for how it contrasts with the aw-shucks attitude of his Peter Parker persona. Offsetting Holland you’ll find Robert Pattinson as the well-dressed and charismatic Reverend Preston Teagardin. Where Arvin operates from a place of reaction and instinct, Preston is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; manipulative and conniving. Predatory. The clash between these two provides the juiciest drama of the piece. Holland is good, but Pattinson gleams.
Elsewhere in this stacked cast, Mia Wasikowska’s Helen falls foul of maniacal preacher man Roy Laferty (Harry Melling); Holland’s Marvel co-star Sebastian Stan chews tobacco and scenery as politically minded lawman Lee Boedecker; married murderers Riley Keough and Jason Clarke embroil hitchhikers in their darker desires; and Eliza Scanlen… well, you can guess what happens to Eliza Scanlen. But few of the above get much of a chance to shine as they’re shuffled and dealt.
While family ties interweave most of these stories in some quasi-incestuous way, the main connector is religion. These characters are defined by either their godliness or godlessness. There is a sense of a community warring with its position in the eyes of The Lord, and this preoccupation weighs heavy on how they come to define themselves and one another. Suddenly that voiceover narration feels more pressing; the voice of some imagined and passively observant All Mighty. Or, given the title, it’s opposite.
West Virginian accents and the general aesthetic of poverty aside, this adherence to Bible Belt caricature permeates strongest. But beside the religious bent of the piece there’s also a sense of people ruled by destiny. With the passing of years and generations, Campos’ film seems inclined to draw conclusions about ill-fates passing along bloodlines; that bad luck and bad deeds are hereditary. Exploded outward, it posits an America doomed to repeat the same violent and tragic mistakes over and over. A country in a gloomy downward spiral, not heeding the lessons along the way. This seems to ring especially true as the latter sequences in the timeline rush up to meet the escalating war in Vietnam. Conflict abroad brackets conflict at home. It’s all cyclical.
Were there anything profound in imparting this it seems to have gotten lost in the telling. Donald Ray Pollock’s wild tales tend to fall flat and feel like paltry revelations as incarnated here. There’s not a veneer; few layers need peeling. Rather, The Devil All the Time often seems like a simple laundry list of rotten traits. Our collective crimes of character. No matter who we land on, some element of the right or just is lacking. The jukebox narrative approach is echoed in the (excellent) soundtrack choices. The curation may be sturdy, it may play well, but there are few curiosities or outright surprises in the collection. This leads me to a somewhat dislocated ponderance… Is anyone’s favourite album a compilation?