They say The Lord works in mysterious ways. He certainly does in Antonio Campos new Netflix film, The Devil All The Time. Based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, the film explores the vengeful life stories of several god-fearing Americans as they try to come to terms with a higher power, but truly attempt to come to terms with themselves. It is a dark window into a society where evil can be justified in simple terms and good can be difficult to distinguish from its more aggressive opposite.
Set during the 1940s to the ’60s from Ohio to the invisible gate of the American South, West Virginia, our story is centred around a young man named Arvin (Tom Holland). He deals with childhood trauma and the lessons he learned from his late father Willard (Bill Skarsgård), namely if someone hits you, you hit them back and hit them hard. His life is turned around when a new preacher, Preston Teagarden (Robert Pattinson) comes to town and they are immediately at odds. Also in the middle of this conflict is a large group of saints and sinners all trying to wrestle their own demons.
Campos creates a tone that makes you feel uncomfortable and on edge nearly the entire film. While it does have its slower moments and a rather stout runtime (2 hours and 18 minutes) that tension never seems to fade away. There are several genuinely shocking moments of both violence and decision making that made me widen my eyes, even if I saw some of them coming, including one particular scene near the beginning of the film that involves a preacher trying to prove that God has taken away his fears. He achieves this in a rather, ahem, creepy-crawly way. The situations these characters find themselves in seem to get more and more absurd and violent as it goes along and not all of it is for the faint of heart.
This near-constant tone of anxiety, however, is occasionally hampered by some performances in the film that was a little too hammy for my taste and took me briefly out of the tension and story. Then again, Southern Baptist preachers aren’t exactly known for their subtlety. For the most part, the actors are stellar at bringing us into this dark world. One standout is Tom Holland, playing our lead Arvin. The character wrestles with rage throughout the film and would take a toll on any actor in the role, but Holland handles the material with a balance that allows us to understand the hate Arvin carries, something that it was not achieved the film might not work. Other standouts include Bill Skarsgard as his Lord loving father, also Jason Clarke and Riley Keough as one of the creepiest criminal couples in recent memory.
The film does an excellent job of placing you in a world that feels lived in and dirty, from the rusty farming equipment to the Southern slapdash cooking (fried chicken livers and such). The music is also an important factor through the story as much of the ’50s-’60s era soundtrack can be heard from a car or a radio as the characters are actually listening to the song which is a nice detail. The film is shot with the same aggressive intent as the motivations of most of its characters. My favourite shot being from inside the chapel as we see a POV shot from the perspective of Preacher Teagarden. He observes the area around the church in an almost predatory manner that leads to more intrigue and mystery about who he is.
Antonio Campos tells a tale of classic Americana with some of the film’s locations being a 50’s diner and a pristine white Southern chapel but looks can be deceiving. This movie is not a celebration of these values but an exploration of how they can be twisted for one’s own animalistic desires. The Devil All The Time is Americana gone wrong and the film itself doesn’t always go right, but it will give viewers who are looking for a different kind of American crime story something to experience.