In terms of audience awareness, a violent confrontation between the actors playing Spiderman (Tom Holland) and Batman (Robert Pattison) respectively should be an easy sell. Throw in Sebastian Stan from the Captain America films, plus Pennywise actor Bill Skarsgard, and you’ve got a very appealing package, but comic-book fans need not apply to this bleak, if often compelling Mid-western Gothic drama. Based on a book by Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All The Time has a literary feel, with lots of voice over, tonnes of plot, and a nihilistic feel that’s hard to shake. It’s a high quality product from Netflix, and they should get some credit for shooting high in terms of their estimation of their target audience’s patience.
Willard Russell (Skarsgard) returns from World War 2 to settle in the grim town of Knockenstiff Ohio, where his mother attempts to set him up with the mousey church-goer Helen (Mia Wasikowska). Willard has his own ideas, and sets up his own family, but Willard’s relationship with his son Arvin is stretched by the death of Willard’s wife from cancer. Now played by Tom Holland, Arvin ends up farmed off to his uncle, and develops a protective relationship with his sister Lenora (Eliza Scarlen). Protection is required, since a new preacher named Preston Teagardin (Pattinson) takes a sinister shine to her. Meanwhile sub-plots involving a murderous couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keoch) and local cop Lee Bodecker (Stan) simmer as the corpses begin to pile up.
And the piling up of the corpses is an issue here; in a novel, there’s plenty of time to explore motivation and remorse, but Antonio Campos’ drama sometimes feels reading like a Wikipedia summary, with incident crammed in and no pause for reflection or nuance. That’s no bad thing in terms of a trashily compulsive drama, and there’s a certain entertainment value in watching the field thin around Arvin, a seeded player in a heated-competition of semi-pro homicidal maniacs. The performances are all well-honed, as is the film’s visual palette; Lol Crawley captures a bleak, hand-me-down look that helps nail the feel. If you’re read William Faulkner’s Light in August, or even Harry Crews’ Feast of Snakes, you’ll have a handle on the cynical view of small-town life here, and even if it’s a soap opera, it’s a scrupulously well-assembled one.
John Huston’s Wise Blood or even Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter might be cinematic relations to this tale of preachers, sex and murder; it’s a damning portrait of religion as the endless justification for abusive men to continue their abuse by cloaking themselves in the disguise of Godliness. Issues of race aren’t tackled here, but it’s hard to imagine any race keen to get representation amongst this motley crew. Instead, a sour taste is left by the lack of developed female characters; The Devil All The Time takes a title from the non-stop battles fought by Arvin’s dad, but the fight is very male, and the treatment of women as objects or possessions without agency of their own is frustratingly old-fashioned. The film-makers may feel that such issues fall outside their chosen scope, and these issues aside, this is a big-star, big ambition piece from Netflix, out today, and one which should entertain and horrify their audience in equal measures.
Thanks to Netflix and Organic for advance access to this title.
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME releases globally on Netflix September 16