The Devil All the Time review – deliciously ripe gothic melodrama

“There’s a lot of religion going around with this thing,” says Mickey Rourke’s shell-shocked gumshoe in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, a devilish mix of neo-noir intrigue and gothic horror based on William Hjortsberg’s page-turning novel. The same could be said of The Devil All the Time, a similarly genre-bending tale of twisted faith and postwar trauma, adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel, which drew comparisons with Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. Set between the aftermath of the second world war and the gathering storm of Vietnam, it’s a labyrinthine tale of hardscrabble lives and monstrous deaths in woodsy environs, littered with fanatical fornicating preachers, misguided, faith-fuelled sacrifices and tortuous family legacies, passed unforgivingly from one generation to another.

Flipping back and forth in time as the narrative slips between Coal Creek, West Virginia, and Knockemstiff, Ohio (think Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction meets Dominic Murphy’s White Lightnin’), the interlacing storylines spiral around Arvin Russell (played as a young man by Tom Holland), whose father returned from the war haunted by visions of a grotesque battleground crucifixion. “It seemed that his father had fought the devil all the time,” writes Pollock, whose richly sonorous voice provides the on-screen narration for Antonio Campos’s respectful adaptation.

Facing the loss of his beloved wife, Willard (Bill Skarsgård, who scared everyone to death as a killer clown in It) forces his son to join him in crying out to God – a God who seems oddly unmoved by such desperate devotions as nailing a dead dog to a makeshift cross. Meanwhile, hillbilly preachers pour spiders on their faces and attempt to resurrect recently murdered women, while a pair of serial killing shutterbugs roam the land in search of male “models”, luring their prey with liquor and church talk. “That’s from the Bible, ain’t it honey?” asks Sandy (Riley Keough) sweetly before one such escapade, to which her husband, Carl (an impressively slimy, sweaty Jason Clarke), pointedly replies “Everything is from the Bible…”

These disparate threads must eventually be tied together, and fraternal co-writers Paulo and Antonio Campos do a terrific job of weaving in and out of each story, observing this darkly immersive world through kaleidoscopic eyes. In this ambitious endeavour they are joined by a broad international cast, with Europeans, Americans and Australasians alike taking variable runs at very specific regional accents (the word “deluuuusions!” becomes a 15-syllable warble), creating an ensemble in which there really is no such thing as an incidental role. Notable turns include Robert Pattinson as a philandering preacher, all demonic smiles and ruffled shirts; Haley Bennett as the beloved Charlotte, oozing apple-pie charm in the face of adversity; and Eliza Scanlen (so outstanding in Babyteeth) as innocent soul Lenora, whose mother Helen (Mia Wasikowska) has bequeathed to her a fatal trust in religious authority.


Bill Skarsgård and Haley Bennett in The Devil All the Time.

Bill Skarsgård and Haley Bennett in The Devil All the Time. Photograph: Glen Wilson/Netflix

Having substantially raised his game between 2012’s Simon Killer and 2016’s Christine, Campos takes another significant step up with this sprawling, sinewy epic, broodingly shot on 35mm by versatile cinematographer Lol Crawley with superb production design by Craig Lathrop. On the soundtrack, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s low-key, organic score dances around the popular tunes and close harmony spirituals that burble from car radios, creating an ironic American Graffiti-style counterpoint to the on-screen damnation. However dark the narrative may seem, there’s a strong streak of black humour that accompanies the horror, often facilitated by a pointedly chosen tune.

What’s remarkable, considering the unwieldy storyline, is that it should all hang together on screen, thanks in no small part to Pollock’s guiding hand – or larynx. Having watched the film twice in two days, I’m struck by individual images: Sebastian Stan zipping up his too-tight sheriff’s jacket; Pokey LaFarge leading an ever-so-slightly sinister church singalong; Harry Melling railing at the heavens; Robert Pattinson licking chicken-livered fingers. But it’s the sound of Pollock’s voice that sticks in the mind – a melancholy drone at the heart of this ripe southern gothic melodrama, putting the dead into deadpan.

Watch a trailer for The Devil All the Time

The Guardian

Leave a Reply