“From the fruit of his mouth a man eats what is good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence.” -Proverbs 13:2
Netflix’s The Devil All the Time is an unbelievably grim yet enthralling piece of cinema. Based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, the film spans decades in the lives of its protagonists in two locations: Knockemstiff, Ohio and Coal Creek, West Virginia. The all-star cast includes Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, and Robert Pattinson.
When the trailer for the film dropped months ago, we caught a whiff of what makes The Devil All the Time so compelling: the eerie, almost deranged atmosphere. This is one of the most uncomfortable films I’ve watched. There is no one to latch onto as the hero, no one with a moral compass to steer us in the right direction. It is a truly challenging film, but it rewards the viewer with a sweeping tale of characters warped by faith, violence, and desire.
The film begins with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård, of recent It fame) returning from WWII. On his way, he meets and falls in love with waitress Charlotte. They marry, and move to Knockemstiff, Ohio, giving birth to a son, Arvin (Tom Holland). Willard instills in Arvin a deep sense of faith (despite of—or, perhaps, because of—an incident Willard experiences overseas with a dying, crucified Marine, one of the film’s earliest scenes of misery).
And then Charlotte and Willard both die (no spoilers here, but it, along with the rest of the film, is unrelentingly brutal). Arvin moves on to live with his grandma and grandpa, Emma and Uncle Earskell (Kristin Griffith and David Atkinson) and his stepsister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlan). Arvin becomes Lenora’s protector, and grows up with her and his new family.
The Devil All the Time demands your attention, not only due to the graphic violence but also the intertwining storylines. You have devious couple Sandy and Carl Henderson (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke), who commit sordid crimes as they drive cross-country. You have Sheriff Lee Boedecker (an almost unrecognizable Sebastian Stan), Sandy’s brother, a corrupt and bumbling sheriff. You have Roy Laferty (Henry Melling), a preacher who eats spiders and speaks the word of God alongside his wheelchair-bound brother Theodore (Pokey LaFarge). Then, last but not least, is religious zealot Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson, who steals the movie, speaking in an unidentifiable, menacing Southern twang). All of these characters inevitably intersect, and each one is acting like their lives are depending on it.
The film is narrated by the original novel’s author, Donald Ray Pollock, which gives it greater authenticity. Clocking in at 138 minutes, The Devil All the Time isn’t for the weak-spirited, as sex, violence, and vengeance appear in a constant stream. But it is an intoxicating ride, a noir that harkens back to the works of writers like Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. The film is violent. The film is unforgiving. But it’s a hell of a good time.