The Devil All the Time

 

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Evil holds hands with the blessed in a colourful patchwork quilt that fails to gain momentum.

   
Devil All the Time

The wrong arm of the law: Sebastian Stan

 

There’s lashings of atmosphere in Antonio Campos’s adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel. You feel like you could just reach your hand into the screen and flick aside a mosquito or inhale the aroma of Southern pine. Pollock himself provides the backwoods voice-over, dotting his lethargic drawl with words and phrases like “piddlin’,” “dumb luck” and, descriptively, “sick fuck.” It’s a laidback, avuncular tour of evil doings in Ohio and West Virginia. Campos, who previously directed Rebecca Hall in the true-life character study Christine (2017), has gathered a stellar cast here to flesh out his colourful characters, and there’s plenty of acting to go round. But besides the protagonist Arvin Eugene Russell (Tom Holland), everyone is either on the take or on their knees praying to the glory of God. In fact it’s really God All the Time, as the good folk of West Virginia and Ohio deploy the Good Lord as a currency for their bad deeds. One man sacrifices the family dog so that God will cure his ailing wife, while another kills his wife to illustrate his faith in the Lord. And sometimes God is just an excuse to deflower a young maiden.

 

Things start going wrong for Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), Arvin's father, when he sees a colleague literally crucified by the Japanese during World War II. And so the cross becomes a motif for the misapplication of religion. There’s Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke), who boasts of his time as a teacher in Sunday school not long before shooting a hitchhiker between the eyes. And a Satanic Robert Pattinson plays a preacher who is not so much a snake as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. And Patterson takes as much delight in his Southern vowels as did Daniel Craig in Knives Out.

 

While the novel was divided into six parts, the story strands of the film are more of a mix and match affair, which rather puts the brake on any narrative momentum. While there’s plenty to divert the attention along the way, one does wonder where the hell all of this is going. It’s rich in detail and Southern Gothic ambiance, but there’s little pace or evenness of tone. Consequently, it’s hard to empathise with any one character – not even the grown-up Arvin Eugene Russell – or to really believe in any of them. As backwoods killing sprees go, Fargo was the master for sheer entertainment value, while Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) rightfully remains a favourite among genre fans. This shaggy dog tale fills the time nicely enough, and should give another leg-up to Tom Holland’s increasingly impressive career, but the film lacks suspense and a lightness of touch, in spite of the good performances. The real stars, though, are production designer Craig Lathrop and the ever-excellent cinematographer Lol Crawley.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Harry Melling, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Douglas Hodge, Kristin Griffith, Pokey LaFarge, Michael Banks Repeta, Ever Eloise Landrum, Abby Glover, Drew Starkey, Michael Harding, Jason Collett, and the voice of Donald Ray Pollock as narrator.

 

Dir Antonio Campos, Pro Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Randall Poster and Max Born, Screenplay Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos, from the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, Ph Lol Crawley, Pro Des Craig Lathrop, Ed Sofía Subercaseaux, Music Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Costumes Emma Potter, Dialect coach Rick Lipton.

 

Nine Stories Productions/Bronx Moving Company-Netflix.

138 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 16 September 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 18.