The world can be a bleak and cruel place, but it’s also prone to bouts of beauty and compassion. It often comes down to luck as to which aspect of life a person experiences, but choices made play a major role. Antonio Campos’ new adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel sees only the misery and pain, though, while laying the blame at the feet of fate. The Devil All the Time stays true to its title in its embrace of constant darkness and shows viewers only the worst that humankind has to offer — meaning audiences hoping for a glimpse of humanity or a purpose to the madness are shit out of luck.
Coal Creek, West Virginia and Knockemstiff, Ohio have no reason to stand out in post-World War II heartland America, but sometimes places, like people, find unlikely connections. The through-line here is one of fathers and sons, both literal and religiously figurative, and it’s a line slathered in violence, victims, and twisted faith. The Russell family sits entrenched at the heart of it all beginning with Willard’s (Bill Skarsgard) PTSD-saddled return from the front lines of war. Seeing a fellow soldier crucified by Japanese forces is enough to warp Willard’s Christian sensibilities, and it’s a pain that informs what little remains of his life.
When his wife gets sick he sacrifices his son’s dog to god — a god who’s either disinterested or non-existent — and accomplishes nothing beyond creating a rift between him and the boy. Years later young Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) is an orphan taken in by friends and struggling to find an outlet for his own simmering rage. He takes it out on the bullies harassing his stepsister, but he’ll soon find even more deserving targets of his violence.
Arvin is as close to a lead protagonist as The Devil All the Time manages, and he doesn’t even appear in the form of Holland until forty-five minutes into the film’s over two-hour running time. Other players come and go throughout, but that sprawling roster of characters rarely has room to breathe. Rather than view them as individuals, the script — co-written by Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos — seems content dividing its characters into evil doers and victims. Women almost exclusively fall into the latter group as they’re abused, murdered, and preyed upon by so-called men of god.
That last element seems to be the film’s main source of ire as both of the preachers here, Roy (Harry Melling) and Preston (Robert Pattinson), are terrible people. One is mad in his faith while the other wallows in the power it affords him over the fairer sex. Both get their comeuppance, but that’s saying very little as nearly every character here meets an ugly end at the hands of someone else. Men are cruel or stupid, women are victimized, and faith is a scam orchestrated by the wolves against the sheep among us.
The Devil All the Time tries to cram too much of Pollock’s novel in, but the other misstep with the adaptation effort is narration. Pollock himself handles voice-over duties and adds a rural American poetry to the words. The issue, though, is the steady flow of reveals spoken as part of various character introductions. Within mere moments of meeting Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska) we’re told her body is found in the woods years later — she’s immediately identified as a victim, and her inevitable murder lacks the power its surprise could have otherwise held. Similarly, when photographer Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) meets waitress Sandy (Riley Keough) the narrator instantly reveals that they become murderers of young men. Both of these are examples of the film telling rather than showing, and it hurts the movie’s dramatic effect.
While the drama falters, though, the film retains its engagement through attractive visuals, strong period production design, a sadly honest commentary on Americans, and a hell of a cast. No one here can be accused of giving a poor performance, either, and while some are limited by the character — Wasikowska for example feels entirely wasted — others embrace their particular role with zeal. Pattinson is the standout in that regard as his vile preacher is as charismatic a smooth-talker as you’ve likely seen. Modern sensibilities and the film’s first hour ensure viewers know what to expect from the new preacher, but even if they missed the memos it’s clear Pattinson is up to no good. His drawl and gaze combine in terrifically sickening fashion, so yes, he’s basically riffing on his Twilight persona by once again playing a much older man glamouring unwitting teenagers.
“Some people were born just so they can be buried,” says our omniscient narrator, and that remains the enduring theme and message of The Devil All the Time. Some people exist only to be cause harm or be harmed, and as fate and faith bring families and strangers alike together the results are rarely joyful. The film sees wolves and sheep — those who wield faith as a weapon and those who succumb to it — and nothing else. It’s a grim outlook that’s both beautiful in its ugliness and hard to argue with.