The Devil All the Time
"The Devil All the Time" works due, in large part, to its stellar cast. (Illustration by Baz Pugmire, Michigan State University)

‘The Devil All the Time’ Is a Violent yet Beautiful Film

Antonio Campos’ newest movie depicts intense violence, yet wrestles with even more touching emotions.

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The Devil All the Time

Antonio Campos’ newest movie depicts intense violence, yet wrestles with even more touching emotions.

“Delusions!”

If you’ve seen the film “The Devil All the Time,” which dropped on Netflix in September, you hear this word in Robert Pattinson’s engineered Southern drawl, which he puts on for his role as the Rev. Preston Teagardin. Pattinson emphatically shouts this word during one of his character’s deranged sermons in his small-town church in Coal Creek, West Virginia.

Antonio Campos directs the psychologically thrilling film adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name. The movie primarily follows protagonist Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), an orphan tinged with tragedy and a truly horrific childhood backstory. Arvin fights his own demons as well as his veteran father Willard’s (Bill Skarsgaard).

However, this film almost feels like an anthology of stories, as it also follows the tragic saga of Roy (Harry Melling), Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and Lenora (Eliza Scanlan) Lafferty. Evil also exists in this film, in the human forms of the Rev. Teagardin, and Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl (Jason Clarke) Henderson. All characters somehow intersect, though some exist in the bounds of Coal Creek and others live in Meade, Ohio, where Arvin grows up before the deaths of his parents.

Some spoilers will pepper the rest of this article, so read at your own risk!

This film is nothing if not deeply disturbing. For those uncomfortable with scenes of all types of violence and gore, this film is not for you. This movie includes incidents of graphic nudity, murder, animal cruelty, suicide and sexual assault. Any of these themes alone warrant a trigger warning, but together they can be incredibly overwhelming.

Despite the myriad sensitive subjects present in “The Devil All the Time,” the movie still draws the viewer in. You may want to cover your eyes at times, yet you’ll find yourself peeking through your fingers, unwilling to miss a moment. Holland is a revelation; he manages to seamlessly transform his native British accent into a perfect West Virginia enunciation. You rarely see him smile, his typical jovial nature disappearing into the tormented mind of Arvin. He also manages to act out scenes of both intense emotional vulnerability and violence in the same moment, displaying an incredible talent yet unseen in his previous performances.

While Holland shines, so too does Pattinson. His accent is at times ridiculous, which matches claims that he refused a dialect coach and hid his developed inflection until the first day of filming. His high-pitched, passionate and animated voice draws the viewer in, at first in an enthralling way, later in a way that makes you sick to your stomach.

You want to like Teagardin at the beginning. Who could resist Pattinson with shaggy blonde hair, an enticing twang and impeccably tailored suits? You later find out that you can resist him when “The Devil All the Time” reveals that he takes sexual advantage of adolescent girls and assaults his young wife. He is undoubtedly a monster, but Pattinson manages to portray him in such a way that disgust isn’t a word that accurately describes him. You hate him, you find him revolting, yet you can’t look away from him as he speaks.

Skarsgaard also embodies his emotionally unhinged character. You feel his pain when he sees a marine crucified during his tour in World War II. You watch him fall apart as his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennet) loses her battle with cancer. You feel his desperation when he takes his own life, leaving his son an orphan alone. His pain translates seamlessly onscreen, demonstrating Skarsgaard can play a villain like Pennywise in “It,” and a complicated and damaged man whose internal agony can drive you to tears in one simple scene.

The clearest theme in “The Devil All the Time” is the condemnation of organized religion in the United States. Teagardin and Roy Lafferty are two examples of preachers, different in essential ways, but who both make abominable choices that they justify with their faith. Lafferty murders his wife under the impression that God will allow him to resurrect her. Teagardin hides behind his status as a preacher to take advantage of underage girls. Even Willard uses his faith in disturbing and perverse ways, including brutally shooting and crucifying Arvin’s dog in a misguided attempt to save Charlotte from cancer. Faith in the Christian God only leads these characters astray or allows them to use it as a shield to conceal their immoral acts.

The police presence in this film is similarly negative. Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) works for an organized crime boss, before murdering him when his influence no longer serves his partisan agenda. Lee is a dirty cop and bucks the law when it doesn’t move in his favor, only desiring the position of sheriff for its payday and political favor. He also dies attempting to get revenge for his serial killer sister, after burning all evidence that could indict her and her husband and identify their dozens of victims, all to save his own reputation and win his reelection as sheriff. Lee is not a moral man, and you know that from the moment he appears onscreen, receiving a handjob before begrudgingly going to the scene of Willard’s suicide to assist the young Arvin. Like it does for religious figures, “The Devil All the Time” rightfully disparages police through the example of Lee.

While “The Devil All the Time” is a fantastic film, it unfortunately conforms to Hollywood’s lack of inclusivity. There are no BIPOC present onscreen, nor anyone who veers away from the heteronormative structure of 1960s white America. This is a movie about human nature, the evils that lurk in the shadows and a clear condemnation of religion and police. However, it sticks to how these themes affect white cishet people. While I’m sure Pollock’s novel focused only on white people, and incorporating BIPOC and LGBTQ+ characters requires added depth on themes of racism and homophobia given the film’s time and place, would it have been so hard to add an iota of inclusion?

Despite the obvious lack of representation in Campos’ film, “The Devil All the Time” manages to remain a movie worth watching, with an all-star cast that embodies each character perfectly. It remarks on faith and policing in a subtle yet damning way. It also forces the reader to reckon with questions of good versus evil, the impact of childhood on a person’s development and what it means to be human. While I maintain that it is important to remain aware of your triggers before viewing, “The Devil All the Time” is a must-watch for those capable of watching it.

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