A sorrowful take on the aftermath of World War II, and the effect it has on generations of psyches, Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time marks a step towards the epic. With 2012’s Simon Killer, Campos gave us a brooding and brutal character study; 2016’s Christine is a creepy, unsettling experience, centred around the seedy misogyny of a budget-strapped local newsroom. The Devil All the Time feels like an expansive amalgamation of Campos’ work to date, a brutal multi-generational backwoods thriller played out to religious tableaux.
Flannery O’Connor called Southern writing ‘Christ-haunted’, and Antonio Campos’ new film The Devil All the Time fits her description. Campos gets the bedeviled ball rolling when Willard (Bill Skarsgård) encounters a gruesome battleground crucifixion during World War II.
From there, faith, abuse of power, and generational trauma become the focus for our ensemble cast and their sprawling storylines, which sweep us along from the 1940s to the 1960s, just when the spectre of the Vietnam War is entering the frame.
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Our locales are the aptly named Knockemstiff, Ohio and Cold Creek, Virginia, where Old Testament brutality nestles up to chocolate box churches. Our guide to these backwoods and soon-to-be basins for blood is Donald Ray Pollock, here lending a melancholy drawl as narrator, while the film is adapted from his 2011 novel (Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, and published a short story collection named after it.)
As charming and sonorous as Pollock’s voice is, the gesture seems to me ill-advised: foreshadowing diminishes tension, before we’ve had time to meet the characters; and while the novel cleaves to a close third-person point of view, the film’s narration tends toward omniscient sentimentalising.
For instance, early on, as Willard, returning from war, stops off at a roadside cafe where Johnny Mercer’s ‘Dream’ is playing (and think of the way David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino use vintage pop songs to set the stage for gruesome violence), the voiceover goes: ‘Right before Willard fell in love, the man whose seat he took would also meet his match.’ Huh? Which man? What seat? What match? And now we know that Willard falls in love, can’t we skip the meet-cute?
Subtly different, but infinitely more propulsive, Pollock’s novel has:
As best as Willard could ever tell, that was when he fell in love. It didn’t matter that the meat loaf was dry and mushy and the roll as hard as a lump of #5 coal. As far as he was concerned, she served him the best meal he ever had in his life. And after he finished it, he got back on the bus without even knowing Charlotte Willoughby’s name.
You can’t help but think that Campos might have better served his source material had he lifted more text for his script; or if he’d set out to make a deliberate and unhurried mini-series (Pollock’s novel is very helpfully broken up into six parts); or if he’d simply put more trust in the audience to put the puzzle pieces together, ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, with savvier cuts à la the Coen brothers.
Their Southern Gothic-tinged films come to mind here (they would surely show us Willard almost cracking a tooth on a bread roll, then show him returning to get Charlotte’s name nonetheless, and the imaginative work we’d be doing joining the dots would have all the more impact.)