“The Devil All the Time” Movie Review


     Tragic and continuously negative circumstances abound in the aptly titled “The Devil All the Time”, a period crime drama from director Antonio Campos, based on the novel by Donald Ray  Pollock.  Campos’ film is the kind of well crafted and exceptionally acted work that would normally spawn some level of awards season mention, but in a year where everyone is understandably looking for something of the uplifting variety, this tantalizing yarn is likely to be overlooked.  Featuring standout performances by Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Jason Clarke, Haley Bennett, Sebastian Stan, and Bill Skarsgard, there is no shortage of intriguing storylines, complex characters, and happenstance which brings many of them on a brutal collision course of violence and revenge.

     Narratively speaking, “The Devil All the Time” utilizes many of the elements that made films such as “No Country For Old Men” (2007) and “Winter’s Bone” (2010) so compelling.  Both effectively transport the audience to a place unfamiliar, while creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for the characters to dwell.  And those characters remain the unsavory types that sway so far from the norm, many will wonder if they actually exist within our society.  Hint: they do.

     While fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II, Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) is exposed to horrifying images and violence, as would be expected when bullets are flying between enemies.  During a patrol in which he and his squad appear to be clearing through the remnants of a battle recently fought, they come upon an American soldier who has been crucified to a make shift wooden cross.  Blood drips from his tortured body.  Flies infest the gaping wounds made by the knives holding him upright through his hands and feet.  The soldier appears dead, but suddenly awakens.  But Willard knows they can’t get him out and his injuries have left him incapacitated, leaving the group with the only humane choice of ending his suffering by way of shooting him in the head.  

     As anyone will tell you who has been through traumatic situations like this, you can’t unsee the things you’ve seen.  And Willard, now having returned to his roots in rural Ohio, will soon show the effects of PTSD which were not widely known at the time, but clearly wreaked havoc on the lives of our returning servicemen and their families.  To an extent, this is the story of how the condition can have lingering consequences decades later.  An issue we sadly still grapple with today.

     Upon his return, Willard meets Charlotte (Haley Bennett), a waitress at a local diner, of whom he ultimately marries and has a son they name Arvin.  In their early years, they live a meager cash strapped life, hoping to one day save enough money to buy the shambled home they currently rent as Willard works long and hard days just to save a few bucks here and there with the hope of achieving their goal.  All seems well, and Alvin, now about 8 years old, is being taught, often harshly, about the importance of hard work, faith, and not taking crap from anyone by his father who seems intent on demonstrating exactly what he expects through example.

     One of those times is an incident Arvin says later he will never forget.  While praying near their home in front of a wooden cross Willard has built in much the same image as the one he came upon as a soldier, the father and son duo encounter two locals wandering through the woods.  Clearly of the trashy type, the pair begin to talk about sexually assaulting Charlotte when Willard is away, among other things.  They eventually leave without incident, but Willard tells Arvin it’s important to know when to strike and to never let anyone get the best of you under any circumstances.  Ultimately, this leads to Willard driving to the two men’s home and beating both of them within an inch of their lives as Arvin watches from their truck.  It’s a disturbing sequence of violence that is echoed throughout the remainder of the film.

     When we fast forward about 8 years (from 1957 to 1965), Arvin is now a young man and played by Tom Holland.  He has lived through several tragic circumstances during that time, and his persona is clearly molded from that of his father’s, a notion that will actually serve him well later.  Campos brings in a series of characters who are now intertwined in Alvin’s life through family and other circumstances.  As the film moves into its third act, you always have the feeling many of them will somehow converge at the wrong time.

     There’s Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), the town’s corrupt Sheriff, whose sister, Sandy (Riley Keough) road trips around the county with her husband, Carl (Jason Clarke), looking for hitchhikers to unwillingly participate in nefarious deeds.  Sandy’s younger sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), is orphaned early in her life and is looked after by Arvin’s Aunt and Uncle, while becoming a sort of sister to him.  Her story moves in the wrong direction when a new pastor takes over at their town church and the lines between religious faith and morality are disturbingly blurred.  The pastor, played with devilish southern charm by Robert Pattinson, is just one of many characters lurking about whose intentions remain in question in virtually every scene they appear in.  All of which makes for a number of inventive twists that give each and every one of these actors the kind of scenery chewing dialogue all of them deserve.

     Know this going in.  There is absolutely nothing positive, uplifting, or redeeming about anything that goes on in “The Devil All the Time”.  I would surmise Campos chose the source material because of its depiction of society’s problems during a bygone era, noting in particular it isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for how far we’ve come today, which is to say, not far at all.  Bad things happen, many times completely out of our control.  And even the strongest will be forced to wage a life long battle against the demons inside them.  Sure, Arvin wants to be good, but the decisions made by those around him have created a sticky web of deceit, debauchery, and evil that even the most noble soul cannot shake.  GRADE: A