The Devil All The Time is available now on Netflix.
Based on the relentlessly dark Southern Gothic novel by Donald Ray Pollock, the fourth feature film from director Antonio Campos (Simon Killer) is both stark and enthralling. Here a genuinely stunning ensemble cast offers gravitas and depth to Pollack’s story as the horrors of community intolerance, isolation, abuse, lies and religious extremism are laid bare. The result is an unrelenting and vivid descent into Southern gothic horror as individual journeys entwine in an ocean of pain and suffering.
Our story opens with the return of a young World War Two veteran, Willard (Bill Skarsgård), from the South Pacific, his war experiences haunting his ability to reintegrate into a community built on blind religious belief. However, the darkness lifts upon meeting a young waitress, and both settle into family life with their firstborn son Arvin. However, if all this sounds idyllic, darker forces surround the community, from poachers who boast about sexually assaulting women to travelling preachers trapped in a deluded world. But as Willard turns to religion for answers, the family collapses into a pit of turmoil and pain with young Arvin sent to live with his grandmother, where he meets his stepsister Lenora.
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We then jump forward to the older Arvin (Tom Holland) and Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who are in high school, their lives unknowingly and inextricably linked to a shared past. Here both are surrounded by gruelling poverty of opportunity, their only safety net, the sibling love they hold for each other. However, a history once thought buried is about to emerge from its shallow grave when a shady and predatory new preacher (Robert Pattinson) comes to town.
Many of the building blocks of Southern gothic horror can be found in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; however, the genre as we now know it found its voice in the work of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Here the classic building blocks of gothic horror were laced with evangelical religious belief, family dysfunction, poverty, toxic masculinity and slavery. This unique Southern perspective is found in movies ranging from The Night of the Hunter (1955) to Killer Joe (2011) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), to name a few. But does The Devil All The Time reach the same heights of drama as many of its predecessors?
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The answer to that question is mixed; there is no doubt The Devil All the Time is enthralling and uncomfortable, with some genuinely stand-out performances that revel in the macabre. Here, Robert Pattinson shows us his diversity as an actor with an unflinching and decidedly dark take on a rural preacher free from any control. While at the same time, Holland continues to build upon his skills. But when you add to this the heartbreaking performance of Eliza Scanlen and the unflinching evil of Keough & Clarke’s disturbed and murderous couple, The Devil All The Time shines.
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However, the weakness comes from a lack of space and time to fully explore the characters. Here the sweeping journey we take from the 40s to the 60s is somewhat rushed in the film’s limited runtime, while Holland occasionally feels out of place, despite his best efforts. But despite this, many other aspects of Campos’ film sing, from the use of 35mm rather than digital to the sublime cinematography of Lol Crawley. These two elements alone ensure The Devil All the Time deserved a cinema release as the grit, dirt, and sweat jump from the screen.
Director: Antonio Campos