Throughout The Devil All the Time’s sprawling story — which unfolds across generations, families, and two wars that shaped them all — men go to the woods to seek God, and instead find horror, usually of their own making. That horror stretches outward to the small rural towns of Knockemstiff, Ohio, and Coal River, West Virginia, usually under the shadow of a cross or not far from one. In this film, being a god-fearing person is an exercise in futility because this is a godless land.
The Netflix film, based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock and directed by Antonio Campos, is a slow-burning rural gothic tale that begins with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) returning home from the War in the Pacific. He starts a family, and his traumas become their traumas as a violent man tries and fails to make up for his shortcomings with faith. In time, his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) succumbs to illness and dies, and Russell never recovers, dying by suicide and leaving his son Arvin (Tom Holland) an orphan.
Arvin’s life is molded by tragedies outside of his control and knowledge. He inherits little from his father other than a pistol and brutishness, taught to deliver retribution to men who wrong others. Unbeknownst to him, other tragedies surround his life: Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), a minister who thinks God will give him the power to raise the dead, murders his wife Helen (Mia Wasikowska). Meanwhile, Sandy and Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) a pair of married serial killers, begin their years-long murder spree, eventually killing Roy and leaving his daughter Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) an orphan. The years roll on, getting meaner all the time.
As The Devil All the Time settles into Arvin’s teenage years about 45 minutes in — where it mostly remains — a new set of tragedies, beginning with the arrival of an opportunistic and sleazy preacher (Robert Pattinson) brings the films disparate threads together for a gruesome yet quiet denouement.
Often little more than a voyeuristic exercise
Narrated by the author of the book upon which the film is based, The Devil All the Time takes on a novel’s texture but lacks its depth. Its talented cast delivers performances that are compelling to watch even as they are deeply unpleasant, but the artfully shot film fails to make much of the loaded imagery that fills each frame. War haunts the edges of this story, and God haunts its heart, yet The Devil All the Time is often little more than a voyeuristic exercise. Its characters rarely interact without the pretext of violence, and its scope resists moments of interiority the movie desperately needs. Ultimately, all the viewers have to hold on to is lovingly crafted misery.
Maybe that misery is the point. Across its 138-minute runtime, it becomes harder to ignore that The Devil All the Time is unflinchingly centered on white faces, ignoring, like many period pieces, the existence of any black or brown Americans in its Midwestern gothic tale. It’s a curious, nagging deficiency in the film, but one that is also central to its horror and why it comes cloaked in the gospel. No matter how hard they pray or how fervent their belief, the denizens of Knockemstiff and Coal River succumb to monstrousness, an evil that is often exported in the name of faith and is finally coming home to roost. Perhaps the mountains of Knockemstiff lack brown faces because they’ve all been forced out and left to scrape by elsewhere. Perhaps what happens in The Devil All the Time is repayment for that and for violence enacted on others abroad. Perhaps the movie simply doesn’t care.