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. With a truly stunning ensemble cast offering both gravitas and depth to Pollack’s story; a sweeping, grisly and lurid family drama. One where community intolerance, isolation, abuse and lies are wrapped in the horror of religious extremism. With communities and individuals either blind to the manipulation and control of toxic religious belief. Or willing to use its influence to justify their own sordid and morally bankrupt behaviours.
The result of which is an unrelenting and vivid descent into Southern gothic horror, as individual journeys entwine into an ocean of pain and suffering. And while many Southern Gothic movies of recent years have laced the darkness with dry comedy. The Devil All The Time takes a far more sombre road, exuding the oppressive heat of a Southern summer. While at the same time ensuring you can almost smell the sweat and tobacco of its characters.
Our story opens with the return of a young World War Two veteran, Willard (Bill Skarsgård) from the South Pacific. His experiences of war haunting his ability to reintegrate into a community built on blind religious belief. However, on meeting a young waitress, the darkness lifts, with both settling down 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. And we haven’t even mentioned the corrupt sheriff or his devilish sister. But as Willard once more 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, who has also been orphaned due to tragedy.
We then jump forward to older Arvin (Tom Holland) and Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) both of whom are in high school. Their present lives unknowingly and inextricably linked to a shared past. Both surrounded by gruelling poverty of opportunity. Their only safety net, the sibling love they hold for each other; protecting them from the darkest corners of the community around them. However, the past once thought buried, is about to emerge from its shallow grave. Just as 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 a voice in the work of both William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. The classic building blocks of gothic horror laced within a Southern frame of evangelical religious belief, family dysfunction, poverty, toxic masculinity and slavery. With cinematic ventures into the genre ranging from The Night of the Hunter (1955) to Killer Joe (2011) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to name but a few. Each one dismantling the legacy of romance and sweeping vista’s created by Gone With the Wind in 1939. But, does The Devil All The Time reach the same heights of drama as many of its predecessors?
In the main, the answer to this question is yes, its impact both enthralling and uncomfortable in equal measure. With some truly stand out performances that revel in the macabre. Of particular reference is Tom Holland, who finally escapes the Spider-Man suit for something far darker in nature. While at the same time, Robert Pattinson once again shows us just how diverse his talents are, with a creepy, unflinching and decidedly dark take on a rural preacher free from any control. 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 transforms into a rich tapestry of captivating characters. Each one, carrying their own burden or sins, in a community where religion is twisted to fit the actions of the individual.
The only inherent weakness comes from a lack of space and time to fully explore the characters at the heart of the film. The sweeping journey from the 1940s to the 1960s feeling somewhat rushed as we are taken sharply from one scene to the next. Of course, this is a common problem when translating a novel for the screen within a tight two and a quarter-hour time-frame. However, in this case, allowing the film to expand beyond the average runtime would have been advantageous.
But despite this, many other aspects of Campos’ film sing with cinematic perfection, from the use of film rather than digital technology, through to the sublime cinematography of Lol Crawley. These two elements alone result in a movie that deserved a cinema release. And when placed alongside riveting performances and the feeling of grit, dirt and sweat that permeates each scene. The Devil All The Time is an assured addition to the ‘Southern Gothic’ genre, that oozes a relentless stream of social horror.
Director: Antonio Campos