“Blessed Are Those That Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness.” – Reverend Preston Teagardin
A gripping yet troubling exposé of a period in history that frequently appears overly sanitised, 2020’s The Devil All the Time is a superb Netflix Original that utilises its relentlessly grim narrative, stellar all-star cast and period-accurate song choices to explore an underused setting in cinema; Southern Ohio in the 1950s. And, as a result, the film crafts an engaging and thought-provoking tale of backwoods preachers, religious zealots and broken, weathered souls witnessing the atrocities of a post-war world, replenished with sins that even faith is unable to wash away.
Plot Summary: In 1950s-era rural Southern Ohio, an assortment of crooked and sinister individuals intersect paths in the Midwestern town of Knockemstiff, a rustic, sparsely-populated cesspool teeming with corruption and brutality…
Co-written and directed by Antonio Campos (Buy It Now, Simon Killer, Christine), the screenplay for The Devil All the Time was adapted from the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who, interestingly, actually performed the narration for the film, making the role his first-ever narrating position as he avoided performing the voiceover work for his own audiobooks. Similar to the original novel, a large majority of the story revolves around the real-life town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. Here, the non-linear narrative, which examines the violent vestiges of religious iconography, thrusts an array of devilish characters to encounter one another through differing scenarios, often resulting in horrific outcomes. In particular, the opening three arcs produce a distressing first act where death is seemingly always lurking around the corner. However, while most of the characters and their individual storylines are captivating, certain characters (and their continually fiendish actions) can appear somewhat underdeveloped due to a lack of screen-time, along with a few narrative details, namely, the subplot of Deputy Lee Bodecker accepting payments as a corrupt officer, not falling into place.
Regarding one of the finest aspects of the film, the central cast of Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Harry Melling, Bill Skarsgård and Sebastian Stan (among many others) are all exceptional in their various roles, with most of the cast’s accents seeming flawless, barring Holland and Pattinson’s accents, which come across as inconsistent and wildly over-the-top, respectively. The cast’s performances are only enriched by their usually well-written characters, however, as their unanswered prayers seem to eventually lead each of them to turmoil as they exist at a bleak point in history where treatments for diseases were scarce and a devastating World War had just wiped out millions, rendering religion to serve as the only recourse for most. What makes the characters more intriguing is that The Devil All the Time is also a multigenerational tale, beginning with the semi-protagonist, Arvin Russell, as a youngster before concluding the story with Arvin as an adult in his early twenties, all the while propelling Arvin and his step-sister, Lenora, to reckon with the ghosts of their parents’ past. That is not to say that any character is represented as exemplary, though, as during the final act, the primarily benevolent Arvin exercises his father’s vengeful tactics for a satisfyingly violent payoff.
In a rather bothersome decision, The Devil All the Time repeatedly feels compelled to remind the audience of earlier sequences in the story that mirror later moments. Yet, most of the time, these flickers of earlier scenes in the film are thoroughly unnecessary and quickly begin to grate on the audience. Aside from this annoyance, the editing and cinematography by Lol Crawley are serviceable, continually being enhanced by the terrific set design and set dressing, which makes every inch of the rundown town of Knockemstiff appear worn and ripe with religious imagery.
Alongside the original score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, which remains nuanced and unpretentious whilst still adding to the cruelty and suspense on-screen at many points, The Devil All the Time employs an extensive selection of traditional gospel tunes and ’50s-era songs, such as Washed in the Blood, The Three Bells and Honeycomb, all beneficially playing into the setting and underlying religious themes of the story with some of the more upbeat songs even prompting certain scenes to develop a moderately satirical tone.
Returning to the visuals, momentarily, crucifixion is a recurring image throughout the runtime, relating to the film’s central underlying theme of the conflict between belief and the horrors of the real world. For example, in the first act, Willard Russell discovers a bloodied, fly-infested serviceman crucified during his deployment on the Solomon Islands during World War II. This image changes the once godly soldier to a religiously apathetic, but more importantly, makes it apparent how closely savagery and sacrifice are exemplified through the image of Jesus Christ tortured on the cross. Later in the film, there is also a painting of Jesus Christ on the cross hanging on the wall in Arvin’s room, reminding the audience of this subtext.
In summary, whilst The Devil All the Time‘s ruthlessly pessimistic narrative can occasionally be harrowing to the point of punishment, much of the dour storytelling is offset by the strong work from the outstanding cast, whose performances are often so compelling they even redeem the rather conventional style of filmmaking the film adopts, which is unlikely to leave any audience member in awe. Still, The Devil All the Time is an effective, religion-centred thriller. Rating: 7/10.