THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. This country has long suffered from an identity crisis — 2020 has turned it into an outright catastrophe but it was a pre-existing condition going back almost as far as the nation itself. City does not know what to do with Country and vice versa, each population distrusting the other to the point of alienation, fear and contempt. City has long dominated the cultural discourse, in rapportage and art, with Country languishing as a kind of malformed twin confined to the shadows. There are genres and subgenres exploring life outside the metropolises — the novels of Daniel Woodrell and some of the David Lynch canon spring to mind — and they usually tend to skew dark-to-noir, rolling over rotted logs in the forest of Americana to expose the maggots and chaos below. I am drawn to this lane of artistic exploration, being a country boy with a dark sensibility who grew up here, of all places, the West Coast equivalent of the hills and hollows of the Southeast, mythic homes both of outlaw culture and barely concealed backwoods malfeasance. There are plenty of folksy, heartwarming tales of rural life, I'm sure; I haven't really looked for them. The truth of life in rural America obviously falls somewhere between Little House on the Prairie and The Devil All the Time. But in artistic representation, that life tends to be handled with childlike superficiality or distilled into the bitterest brew. The Devil All the Time attempts the latter.
I was skeptical at first and remain so even after watching the movie. It is based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock who, according to the internet, labored half a lifetime in a southern Ohio paper mill before pivoting to a life of letters. He is very much of the place in which he set this, his debut novel (which I have not yet read). His work was adapted by the screen, though, by Antonio and Paulo Campos, with Antonio directing. Antonio, the son of a producer and manager, and a New York City native, has risen to prominence in the independent cinema world in recent years. My skepticism blooms: Can the City translate the Country without leering or condescension? I think so and the fact that Pollock signed on to narrate the movie seems to point to his approval, but I'm still not entirely sure.
Crossing the border between Ohio and West Virginia while shuttling back and forth in time over a 20-year period, The Devil All the Time lays out a grisly lattice of misplaced faith, injustice, thrill killing, domination and subjugation. Our protagonist and proxy is orphaned Arvin Russell (played in childhood by Michael Banks Repeta and as a teenager by Tom Holland), who attempts to make sense of it all and wrest some sort of order from the chaos.
Arvin is the only child of Willard (Bill Skarsgård), a veteran of the Pacific theater in World War II who is haunted by his experiences there, and Charlotte (Haley Bennett), the kindhearted waitress with whom Willard fell in love after a brief meeting during a stopover on his bus ride home. Arvin's parents come to bad ends and he ends up in the care of his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and uncle Earskell (David Atkinson), who have also taken in Lenora Laferty (Eliza Scanlen). Eliza is also a child of tragedy, being the offspring of Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska), whom Emma took in after her family died in a fire, and Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), a delusional maniac preacher; neither parent is active in Lenora's upbringing, for very different reasons. Intersecting the life-trajectories of Arvin and Lenora, at intervals, are a married pair of road killers named Sandy and Carl (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke) — he with troubling artistic aspirations, she with an increasing distaste for their pastime — her older, sheriff brother Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) and an oily, nefarious preacher called Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). Arvin self-appoints as Lenora's protector but in a world full of snakes, there is only so much he can do.
There is a Shakespearean/Greek tragedy element to the scale and complexity of this narrative, its telling compounded jumping around in time. To the credit of the Brothers Campos, the narrative spools out almost too languidly and the violence that punctuates it feels less shocking than it does de rigueur. In this darkened corner of the country, wrongdoing begets violence in the only semblance of justice to be had. Good, bad or indifferent, murder is the process and product by which lives are determined.
While not shocked by the killing or the thematic darkness in The Devil All the Time, I'll acknowldedge that it is decidedly not for all tastes. It is, however, a self-assured examination of violence and questioned faith that avoids the potential pitfalls of a period drama set in the rural South. It is good looking without showiness, with some unexpectedly restrained, interior performances from a formidable cast. R. 138M. NETFLIX.