Two early scenes in Antonio Campos’ bold, bizarre and destined to be misunderstood The Devil All the Time introduce the dichotomy the film aims to bridge. In one, a small town waitress named Charlotte (Haley Bennett) sneaks some food out the back door of a diner to the homeless man her employer has banished from the premises. In another, a World War II grunt named Willard (Bill Skarsgård) happens upon a fellow soldier who’s been tortured, flayed and crucified yet somehow clings to excruciating consciousness even as insects eat away at what remains of his flesh; Willard puts a bullet through the poor man’s brain. These are illustrations–one wholesome, one harrowing–of the same impulse toward mercy. Charlotte and Willard soon meet and are married, even further joining their similar though differently expressed philosophies. The deep well of suffering and brutality from which Campos repeatedly draws over the course of The Devil All the Time is not present despite the movie’s Christian values but because of them, especially when you’re talking about that old time religion.
Adapted by Campos and Paulo Campos from a novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who provides droll third person narration), The Devil All the Time tells a sprawling, not always linear story over nearly three decades with a shockingly deep bench of a cast. If there’s one protagonist, though, it’s Charlotte and Willard’s son, Arvin Russell (played by Tom Holland in the character’s adult years), who comes into contact with lecherous preachers (Robert Pattinson), lovebird murderers (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke), corrupt sheriffs (Sebastian Stan) and other monsters during his hard life, the sickly bewitching grotesquerie of which is made more palatable by the lovingly lit cinematography of Lol Crawley (who, with work in movies like Vox Lux and 45 Years, has become something of a go-to guy for when you want to shoot on 35MM film and you want it to show).
As implied, The Devil All the Time has a damned high body count for what essentially amounts to a coming of age story. Yet, provided you have the constitution for it, there’s something glorious about the movie’s violence. Or rather, that’s how the characters often see it. Coming from a land of Pentecostal mania as they do–Harry Melling shows up as a preacher who covers himself in poisonous spiders as his showstopper, at least until he graduates to something more extreme–the sublime physical surrender to something like speaking in tongues is carried over to an almost pious unwillingness to stand in the way of one’s most depraved impulses. After all, that’s just the fiery spirit by another name. Campos allows us, however, to see the beatings, murders and more as they actually are, senseless, random and cruel. The gulf between our perception of these acts and that of the characters is often nauseating. It’s no accidental irony, then, that the Arvin the nonbeliever’s violence is depicted as the most righteous.
Intriguingly, The Devil All the Time avoids becoming stridently anti-Christianity, instead cheekily taking its tenets as face value. This is, after all, a belief system founded on a human/divine sacrifice whose blood and flesh are consumed anew every Sunday by happy folks in their finest duds. It’s hard not to smile when Campos shows us a cheery rendition of the song whose chorus repeatedly asks, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” The Devil All the Time is more mythic than polemic, with a connection to the Southern Gothic (or, I suppose, Appalachian Gothic in this case) tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams. Or, for a more recent comparison, look to the comic book and television series Preacher.
Of course, in Preacher, there’s no question as to the existence of God. The Devil All the Time more closely resembles real life, in which no evidence of either God or the devil is observable. Despite the title, actually, the latter barely even gets a mention and the former only seems to be what any given person says He is. Acts of charity like those in the early going are done without mention of God at all. He’s only invoked by name when someone wants to justify their own wishes and desires, a perverted equating of God with the man or woman praying to Him.
There’s another connection to certain vintages of Southern Gothic and it’s the thing that makes the film so recommendable to those of the right disposition: A pitch black sense of humor. The movie has a kind of running anti-punchline in which any time it feels like a character might be in any danger, they are almost certainly about to die. And meanwhile, Pollock’s narration is filled with disarmingly colloquial turns of phrase like, “He smelled worse than a truck stop shitter.” Everything that happens in The Devil All the Time is both larger than and every bit as insignificant as life itself. Come Heaven or Hell, we’re all only human. And that’s bad enough for me.