There ain’t one silver lining in Antonio Campos’ The Devil All The Time. Set between the end of World War II and the Vietnam War, the film presents a set of doomed characters living a life of misery and always running the risk of becoming a victim of violence that has been sprawling in the small town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, for generations. It is not merely a nod to the era it is set in, it is an acceptance of the evil thriving in both poor and rich people. But despite knowing that it’s a sure dose of depression, it is hard to turn it off without knowing what happened to its bleak characters even though it is apparent that there is no redemption in sight.
The Devil All The Time has been adapted by Campos and his brother Paulo from a 2011 Donald Ray Pollock novel and while for the sake of fluidness, some elements of the story have been reformed, the Campos brothers remain loyal to its inherent tone and timeline.
The film begins with Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) a 9-year-old shy and underconfident son of Bill Skarsgard‘s Willard. Remaining loyal to the time hops in the novel, Campos himself narrates the story of Willard and how returning from the World War II as a soldier first suppressed his faith but when he finds love again and gets married, as a family man with the dream of a better future, he turns to God again.
The same day and place he met his love, Sandy and Carl (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke) meet and connect because of their similar psychopathic tendencies. As a married couple they take road trips through the country, pick up hitchhikers who Carl forces to get intimate with his wife Sandy and then kills them, all the while taking their pictures ‘cause that’s the kind of photography he likes.
The young Arvin soon finds himself orphaned and living with his God-fearing grandma Emma (Kristin Griffith) and a sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Her parents, Roy (Harry Melling) a preacher and Helen (Mia Wasikowska) who was enamoured by the fact that her husband seemingly had a direct line with the Almighty, also left her orphaned after becoming one of many tragic arcs The Devil All The Time has to offer. But in a way, even while their parents are gone, the life they led has imprinted on the future of their children.
Lenora is quiet and gentle like her mother but has inherited her father’s fierce belief that makes her a gullible victim for bullies at school and the town’s new preacher, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), a vile predator who exploits young women. Even though Arvin hates his father, his teachings helps him to deal with the bullies but he misses out on the real evil and that’s what pitches him on a path that he never envisioned himself on.
With a running time of more than 2 hours, the incessant presence of misery and despair in a small town, driving forth the message that the world is too cruel to change would have been pretty hard to digest had it not been for the excellent cast performances, especially Tom Holland (as the adult Arvin) and Robert Pattinson.
While Tom Holland has admitted previously that he found it hard to play the morbid character of Arvin, he brings to the screen an authentic characterization of a young man burdened with the pain of a dreary world too soon. In a similar fashion, Robert Pattinson, who has mostly played straight-A characters, practically oozes sleaze as the vile pervert preacher that you will find genuine hatred welling up for the character.
Thus even though The Devil All The Time is a sad tale of broken trusts and ended dreams, the fact that it is supported by powerhouse performances all round will make it almost impossible to look away.