‘Arachnophile preachers and finger-licking sermons’ – review of The Devil All the Time - whynow

‘Arachnophile preachers and finger-licking sermons’ – review of The Devil All the Time


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.

CHRIST-HAUNTED

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.

 SODOM AND GOMORRAH

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?

The Devil All The Time (L-R) Bill Skarsgård as Willard Russell, Michael Banks Repeta as Arvin Russell. Photo Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2020

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.)

‘THERE’S A LOT OF NO-GOOD SONS OF BITCHES OUT THERE’

But where I’ve got gripes about the pacing, others are bound to experience a smooth flow, Pulp Fiction-esque digression, and a lived-in atmosphere: in any case, shot on 35mm by cinematographer Lol Crawley and with excellent production design by Craig Lathrop, this grimy, tactile world is seductive; you’re inclined to languish in the sun-blushed streets and isolated woods of the Bible belt until the epic, interlocking plots slide into view.

And they are juicy when they do: Willard falls for Charlotte (Haley Bennett). They have a son called Arvin (who will be played as a young adult by Tom Holland).

Willard soon imparts the life-lesson that bullies get disproportionately maimed in return for black eyes, and starts bringing young Arvin along for tense prayer sessions before a makeshift cross in a clearing in the eerie woods behind their house; Willard is all the while haunted by images of the war, and Arvin is a sponge for his father’s troubles. (I suspect watching your father kill your dog would be enough on its own to scar you for life.)

Elsewhere: ‘The man whose seat [Willard] took’ i.e. Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) does indeed meet his ‘match’: he’s a creepo with a camera, and in waitress Sandy (Riley Keough) he finds a woman who shares his snap-happy taste for the macabre. The pair soon become honeymoon killers, whose sadistic picnics and psychosexual ‘photo shoots’ lead to the grisly end of many a hitchhiker.

Another romance bound to end badly is struck up between Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska) and charismatic evangelical preacher Roy Laferty (Harry Melling, perhaps best known for playing Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter, but who gave a stunning and heartbreaking performance as a doomed, quadriplegic Artist in the Coen brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs).

this second generation must contend with not only their own misery and the hurt inherited from their parents, but with a new preacher in town

Roy is one of those flint-eyed men of god who pour spiders over their heads to demonstrate their faith. One day, he’s bitten on the cheek, has a severe allergic reaction, and confines himself to a cupboard for days. When he emerges, he believes he has the ability to resurrect the dead. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t.

The Devil All The Time: Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin. Photo Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2020

Eliza Scanlen plays Roy and Helen’s daughter, Lenora Russell, as a young teenager in the 60s. Together with Arvin, this second generation must contend with not only their own misery and the hurt inherited from their parents, but with a new preacher in town.

He goes by the name of Rev. Preston Teagardin, and is played by Robert Pattinson. Pattinson keeps the reverend on the believably creepy side of camp, licking chicken liver juices from his fingers and wailing ‘delu-u-u-u-sions’ with about thirteen syllables. He’s got some ideas about how Lenora can ‘show herself’ to God.

 

‘SOME PEOPLE WERE BORN JUST SO THEY COULD BE BURIED’

It’s a telling line: both for the film’s nihilist tone and its body count.

There’s a fine line between a cinematic exploration of the ‘banality of evil’ — Hannah Arendt’s phrase, the suggestion that evil acts are not necessarily perpetrated by evil people, but instead motivated by a kind of complacency — and evil, which, on film, ends up looking banal. Campos for the most part tows the line — which is a feat, when you’re following broadly-drawn ‘grotesques’, arachnophile preachers and finger-licking sermons.

It’s Tom Holland, however, who commands our empathy, balancing menace with heartbreak. He brings a youthful innocence to his battles with depravity, both internal and external; as such, his character Arvin is testament to the idea that we are less heroes than underdogs in the films of our lives, and our struggles can be as ordinary as they are profound.

one suspects that as good as Arvin’s heart might be, he’ll be passing on some trauma of his own to his children

‘It seemed to him that his father had fought the devil all the time,’ the narrator tells us, and it’s Arvin who embodies the film’s central theme — that is, people searching for the presence or absence of God in a seemingly godforsaken place.

It might be possible for Arvin to claw his way out of this backwater town, where horror and misfortune have sunken into the bones of the place, but one suspects that as good as Arvin’s heart might be, he’ll be passing on some trauma of his own to his children, them to theirs, and so on ad infinitum. The ugly history of the U.S. South — much of it not touched upon here — makes it an appealing setting for stories of violence begetting violence. Flannery O’Connor again: ‘Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows’.

THE NEARER THE CHURCH, THE FURTHER FROM GOD

While overcoming so much misery might seem a futile struggle, Campos keeps the possibility of hope alive. That’s not to say this isn’t a film as dark as they come. It’s probably best enjoyed by letting yourself sink into its winding roads and gorgeously damp palette.

This a world of might-makes-right morality, where icky preachers have hateful plans for their flock, where hopeless plans are hatched, and prayers are made to a God who cannot hear you.


The Devil All The Time is on Netflix now.

Rampa  They Will Be