The Devil All the Time pretty clearly communicates to us that bad things happen to good people...and bad things happen to bad people. Bad things just tend to happen, period. Especially if you reside in rural America, during the mid-twentieth century. However, it does also tell us that good people exist...maybe...but they still tend to do bad things. The road to hell and all that... It was a lot.
This modern noir story, follows many different people and examines how their paths cross over forty odd years. Interestingly, the film has one consistent omniscient narrator, and the voice is provided by none other than Donald Ray Pollock, author of the The Devil All the Time novel. That's right, we're starting this review with some fun facts, because a summary of the plot is not going to be possible. There are many characters, and many plots which all intersect at one point or another. It has a strange effect really, because the fact that so many individual stories are linked together, makes it feel like a higher power is involved, but thematically, this story is certainly not one that tries to prove the existence of God. If anything, it's about the cruelty of life. Sometimes this cruelty is purposeful and caused by people, and sometimes it's altogether random.
The film does seem to mostly centre around a man named Willard (Bill Skarsgård) and his son Arvin (Tom Holland). It's fairly early in the film, when Willard is seen as a soldier in World War II. He comes across an allied soldier, who has been crucified, but is still alive. Willard kills the man to put him out of his misery. Upon returning home, his mother grabs him into her arms and cries; Willard comforts her by saying, "It's okay". But it clearly isn't. He's haunted by the image of Miller Jones, skinned, crucified and left alive to slowly die. Although he doesn't talk to anyone about what he saw, his yet-to-be-born son, Arvin, ends up being haunted by a very similar image many years later. It's a very noticeable demonstration of the concept that trauma can be passed on from one generation to the next.
Whilst Willard and Arvin are haunted by the concept of the crucifix, many of the people around them are not. The church has a strong presence throughout the film. Director Antonio Campos makes it very clear however, that anyone can memorise a bible, but that doesn't necessarily make them a good person. This is epitomised in the character of Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). I won't divulge exactly what he does, however I will say that it involves preying on the weak and a side-serve of gaslighting. Pattinson does a great job in this role; he absolutely made my skin crawl. Really, I shouldn't be showering praise on Pattinson though, this is a great cast, who deliver a number of intense roles well.
It goes without saying, that this film also has something to say about power and corruption. Whilst the Reverend uses his position of power to take advantage of others, so too does Deputy Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) to further his career and to hide anything that might appear to be incriminating. Outside of these powerful positions in society, there are also repeated instances of bullying behaviour throughout the film, first with Willard and his family, and later with the character of Lenora. Finally, this film demonstrates the power that people give to God: praying that children come home from war; that terminal cancer is cured; and that people who've long been missing might return. More often than not, things turn out for the worse, not the better.
This film was certainly interesting, but it was a lot to digest. Towards the end, I asked myself what it was that kept me watching the whole time, because in the end it felt a little masochistic. I think it's the character of Arvin. In a weird way, he provides hope throughout The Devil All the Time. You want him to triumph and to overcome all of the terrible circumstances that continue to set him back. What happens to Arvin in the end? You'll have to watch the film to find out.
I watched The Devil All the Time directly after watching Enola Holmes. If you plan to do the same, I would not recommend this film at all. The outcome was an even more depressing time than expected. However, should you be interested in watching this film, I'd highly recommend following it with Enola Holmes as a quirky pick-me-up when you're done. The Devil All the Time is good, if you're interested in this kind of movie.