The Devil All the Time is a dark and twisted backwoods thriller with a sensational ensemble cast. The film is an adaptation of the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who pulls double duty as narrator. The plot follows several disparate characters over three time periods between two rural towns, Knockemstiff, Ohio (an actual place), and Coal Creek, West Virginia. Religion is the constant theme in a sanguinary stew of murders, suicides, and sexual predation. Graphic violence is sprinkled throughout to mitigate the long runtime. The film had my attention rapt until a somewhat predictable climax.
The Devil All the Time opens in 1957 Knockemstiff with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) chastising his nine-year-old son, Alvin (Michael Banks Repeta). The boy has become a target of bullies. Willard forces Alvin to pray before a makeshift cross in the woods. The story flashes back to a gruesome World War II event that deeply troubled Willard. He meets Alvin’s mother, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), at a diner on his way home to Coal Creek. During this same period, Sandy (Riley Keough), a bartender who sidelines as a hooker, meets Carl (Jason Clarke), a photographer with an evil fetish.
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In 1965, a teenaged Alvin (Tom Holland), lives with his devout grandmother and uncle in Coal Creek after a series of tragedies years earlier. Alvin protects and cherishes Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), a pious girl who was raised by his grandmother. Her parents vanished mysteriously when she was an infant. Lenora is transfixed by the handsome new preacher assigned to their church. Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) uses scripture as a weapon for pedophilia.
Meanwhile in Knockemstiff, Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), the corrupt sheriff and Sandy’s older brother, is worried about the upcoming election. The locals are beginning to frown at the town’s brothel. It’s recalcitrant owner (Douglas Hodge) has cut his payoffs. And another dead hitchhiker has been found in the Ohio woods.
The Devil All the Time connects the characters and towns while swaying from one brutal event to another. There are scenes that are stomach churning. Not all of them are violent, the reverend’s car rides with Lenora and the girls in his flock are difficult to watch. Robert Pattinson is a spectacular scumbag, but nowhere near the most depraved. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough’s photography escapades are beyond sadistic. Their murderous rampage is the most villainous in a film loaded with abhorrent, deviant behavior.
Director Antonio Campos (Martha Marcy May Marlene) does an excellent job threading the different storylines together. This is done through clever editing and deft use of voice over narration. Alvin flashes back continuously to a defining day with his father. These pivotal scenes explain his actions as he deals with unexpected conflicts. Donald Ray Pollock has as much dialogue as the players. This level of narration is usually a crutch for a weak script, but not here. Pollock’s commentary, sometimes in disgust, is insightful. He’s the voice of reason and normalcy that centers the film.
Tom Holland takes a dramatic leap as an actor. He proves his mettle in a truly disturbing film. Spider-Man fans would find Alvin Russell unrecognizable. The Devil All the Time is strictly meant for mature audiences. There are scenes of animal cruelty that will traumatize children. The Devil All the Time is produced by Nine Stories Productions and Bronx Moving Company. It will be released September 16th globally on Netflix.
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Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.