Southern Gothic has remained a compelling — though albeit an understated — genre these days, as many studios opt for stories that can only be told through grandiose visual effects and high-octane choreography, rather than simplicity and genuine human rawness. Well, director Antonio Campos’ sets out to stir things up with his dark mystery film The Devil All the Time. There’s nothing more frightening than realising that the people we know are not what they seem, and this film exploits that often-horrifying truth to its advantage, leaving viewers feeling unsettled before, during and long after the credits have rolled.
Helmed by Tom Holland, and aided by a stellar cast, the piece portrays the gruesomeness and desperation that defined living within the confines of backwoods Ohio and Virginia in the 1950s. Based upon the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who also doubles as the omnipresent narrator, The Devil All the Time follows an array of troubled characters in post-war Americana. There’s Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a recently returned veteran who falls in love with Charlotte (Hayley Bennett) and marries her despite the internal torment he’s plagued with from the battlefield. When tragedy befalls Willard and his family, they cannot hope to recover, and young Arvin (Tom Holland) finds himself on the step of his grandma’s house, left with nothing but clashing memories, sacrificial altars and prayer crosses that have never worked.
Then there’s Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough), who spend their days picking up unsuspecting hitchhikers, treating them to a nice lunch before seducing and murdering them — all so they can take beautiful photos. Matters are made complicated for the pair when Sandy starts to have a change of heart, and her older brother, Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) finds one of their taboo souvenirs.
Years later, when Arvin Russell is grown, he spends his time looking out for his stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who was raised by his poor, doting grandmother after her naïve mother Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and her spider-eating Reverend of a father Roy (Harry Melling) leave one afternoon and never return. When new preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) takes over religious duties in the town’s small church house, and Lenora falls victim to his predatory charms, Arvin takes it upon himself to see to it that all those “no good sons of bitches out there” get what they deserve.
As the tumultuous paths that each character is doomed to follow begin to converge, the traumatic, violent encounters that take place imprints the burning mark of suffering on their ugly hearts and their wild minds.
The Devil All the Time is a slow-burn mystery, woven together from the threads of both past and present, morality and immorality, sin and confession, fear and vulnerability. The film is jammed-packed full of brutal creatures, devoid of innocence yet easily misled, be it by the Lord they all dutifully call upon, their family, or themselves. It is “a generational story about the cyclical pattern of violence . . . about what we inherent and what we pass on”, explains Campos, and the aftershocks of this domino effect are experienced to the extreme.
“Some people are born just so they can be buried” and indeed they are; The body count continues to pile up over the course of the two hour and eighteen minute runtime. As a result, the palpable tension and the danger that unites one scene to the next, becomes its own character. The heaviness that weighs on the shoulders of each man, woman and child is as thick as the blood that is frequently spilt. The stripped, rugged environment of Alabama where the film was shot lends itself well to such a sinister atmosphere. At times, the characters are traversing churning mental waters hellbent on drowning them as much as they are also unwelcoming physical locations.
In regard to the cast itself, there is no question that Pollock’s story was brought to life by some of the best. Complete transformations were undergone by each of those in a leading role, which only adds to the authenticity of the story. Most noticeably, however, were Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson’s performances; the darkness all but poured from the inside out whenever they were on screen, accumulating into a grisly, uncomfortable encounter when they share the spotlight with one another. The bubbly, web-slinging neighbourhood hero is gone, replaced by a young man who is wretchedly haunted, and such an evolution is no easy task, but Holland does it beautifully. As for the latter, Pattinson is no stranger to bizarre roles, and it is all too easy for the audience to loathe the slippery eel of a man whom he gives life.
The film is cut and pieced together in a chaotic succession of sorts: where one story ends, another begins. The cinematography is understated but deserves to be complimented, as does the production design as a whole. The light at the heart of the film is minimal and often severely obscured, as a higher power is continuously and obsessively invoked, but hardly deems it worth his while to intervene. With that said, not every film needs a blatant message — sometimes, it is enough to just survive, to know that it’s possible to make it through the night with our blood still pumping through our veins, as opposed to it dripping down our throats. Knowing that it is our doing that keeps us going, and not someone else’s wants or lies.
The Devil All the Time is certainly a standout this year thanks to Netflix and the platform’s uncanny but remarkable ability to acquire quality content and much-loved stars. A sombre critique on the horrors of blind faith, sinners run rampant in Pollock’s little slice of southern hell, and this is definitely a story that will stay with you, seeing as ghosts — fictional, or not, are not easily dispelled no matter what form they appear.
The Devil all the Time is available to stream now exclusively on Netflix
by Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95