Movie Review: The Devil All The Time – The Nerd Daily

At times the sheer number of plot threads in The Devil All the Time threatens to derail the entire film, yet every instance of violence, greed, and corruption is bound together by the practice of religious sacrifice. This is not the altruistic type of sacrifice espoused in the New Testament, but rather a selfish, modernist interpretation that destroys others to transcend the universe’s natural order and make way for one’s own personal gain. For the characters who populate the film’s ensemble, sacrifice is a necessary step to summoning divine power, for self-preservation, or to hedonistically experience the sort of sublime peace that can only be felt in the moment one takes another’s life.
Opening on horrific scenes of World War II and ending with a contemplation to join the fight in Vietnam, The Devil All the Time depicts a generational cycle of misery propelled by misogynistic and hyper-religious power structures that even death can’t destroy. Each character is part of a nation obsessed with the sacrifice of thousands of innocent troops, providing them with false reassurances that their families back home will have better lives if they were to give up their lives.
Director Antonio Campos weaves together a rich tapestry with these characters, few of which carry enough depth to stay in the spotlight for too long, but rather complement others to paint a grim landscape of mid-twentieth century southern America. The use of sacrificial murder to serve one’s own interests echoes across the micro- and macro-narratives of the film, unifying decades of American history under a twisted set of egocentric values.
These stories are also tied together by narration voiced by Donald Ray Pollock, the author of the book upon which the film is based. He describes the inner thoughts of his characters in a dry, reserved manner, lending a novelised omniscience to the events of the film. It is this distance which allows us some reprieve from the otherwise harrowing events of the film, being recounted as if they are simply chapters of a modern gothic folk tale. The narration’s tendency to over-explain can be somewhat forgiven, as Pollock’s voice sinks into the background and creates a lulling effect, like the voice one hears in their head while reading a book.

Though definitively an ensemble piece, the most screen time of the film is claimed by Tom Holland as Arvin Russell, a young man whose patience with the evil of his fellow Americans wears thin as he reaches adulthood. Holland certainly demonstrates some range beyond his work as Spider-Man, but it is Bill Skarsgård who makes a greater impression as Arvin’s father, Willard Russell, a traumatised army veteran with a desperate, blind faith in divine intervention. His story dominates much of the first act and parallels Arvin’s own journey later in the film, just as many other characters have older and younger counterparts that emphasise the immortality of certain southern archetypes. Robert Pattinson and Harry Melling are mirrors of each other as intensely deluded preachers separated by a generation, played with scenery-chewing flair. Haley Bennett and Eliza Scanlen play Charlotte and Lenora, two soft-spoken women doomed to leave gaping holes in the lives of the Russell family. Strangely enough, most of this cast is made up of European and Australian actors, further separating us from the setting and seemingly suggesting that the worst parts of American culture can only be captured through the perspectives of neutral outsiders.
The relevance of each subplot and character in The Devil All the Time isn’t immediately apparent, though it is through their thematic underpinnings and motivations that they are tethered to create a scathing indictment of America’s egotistical obsession with transcending human limitations. Anyone expecting a character study that prods deeply into a specific mindset will be left sorely disappointed. The Devil All the Time is not a portrait but a landscape, and through it Campos crafts a setting far more terrifying than any of the perverse individuals who inhabit it.
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