Blood is spilled by devout Christians, psychopaths and ordinary folks in The Devil All the Time, and if God is watching, his response never varies: He keeps out of it.
Antonio Campos’ (Christine) adaptation of the even more violent 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock brings a lot of talent to bear on material descended straight from Flannery O’Connor via Cormac McCarthy. Set in the ’50s and ’60s in two rural Appalachian towns, it ties faith and violence together in a less showy and obvious way than many of its predecessors. Though its structure doesn’t always work to maximum effect, the grim picture gets more involving as it goes and benefits from a hell of a cast.
Though he doesn’t appear until well into the film, Tom Holland’s Arvin will be the story’s heart. We meet Arvin at age 9, where he’s played by Michael Banks Repeta as the rapt son of Bill Skarsgard’s Willard. Much hopping around in time is done in these opening scenes, as the narration (read well by the novelist himself) struggles a bit to introduce the cast of characters. One scene, for instance, finds Willard and another man separately meeting the loves of their lives at the same luncheonette on the same afternoon. These four characters will be linked up, in a way, late in this decades-long tale. But being rather remote, the connection doesn’t seem worth making, given such a busy exposition.
Skarsgard sometimes seems to channel Michael Shannon as Willard, who went on a hiatus from God after witnessing horrors in World War II, then becomes a prayerful man again. He keeps his son by his side at a makeshift altar behind the family cabin. But even the most impassioned prayers don’t keep Arvin from becoming an orphan, sent to live with his nervous grandma Emma (Kristin Griffith).
His new stepsister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), has a similarly tragic backstory. Her father (Harry Melling) was a preacher with an insane belief in the Holy Ghost’s power — instead of snake-handling, he proved his faith with a jar of spiders, and locked himself in a closet for weeks after he was disfigured by them. Her mother (Mia Wasikowska) was a gentle woman who met a sudden death.
Having inherited her father’s belief in a much quieter, more sober way, Lenora is a natural target for bullies at school, and an easy mark for the town’s new preacher (a devilish Robert Pattinson), who has an eye for very young women. Devoted Arvin knows about only one of these threats: While he handles their classmates with a cold brutality his father would’ve admired, he misses the worst predator.
Meanwhile, a married pair of serial killers (Riley Keough and a chilling Jason Clarke) take road trips through the country, picking up hitchhikers and roping them into improvised sex-and-death rituals that Clarke’s Carl likes to photograph.
At least the first half of the film lays all this out in a tidy episodic fashion that, an hour or so in, begins to feel a bit tired. In each, a tragedy or crime is telegraphed well before it occurs; though no one of these sequences is clumsy by any means, the repetition diminishes their impact. (It also, as some critics of the book complained, stretches belief to envision so many killers and creeps in such a small collection of people.) Once or twice, the violence is shocking even when we know it’s coming, but often it’s just a heaping-on, and some viewers will feel like guilty participants in misery tourism.
Holland, though, gradually takes command in the film’s second half, as Arvin feels compelled to move from beating up high schoolers to a more definitive kind of vigilantism. Arvin is a very serious young man, still shaped by boyhood tragedy, and the actor doesn’t need a lot of external theatrics to show us why Arvin has to do what he does. A nail-biting confrontation between him and Pattinson’s preacher feels like it should be the movie’s finale, but it isn’t. And this is the rare occasion when continuing on after such a sequence isn’t a mistake.
Aside from strong performances across the board, credit should be given for a predictably excellent period soundtrack chosen by music supervisors Randall Poster (also a producer here, just his fourth such credit since 1990) and Meghan Currier. Setting pared-down spirituals alongside underexposed radio hits of the day, they help Devil root itself in the real but fictional-sounding hamlets of Knockemstiff, Ohio, and Coal Creek, West Virginia.
Production companies: Borderline Films, Nine Stories Productions
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Robert Pattinson, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Sebastian Stan, Michael Banks Repeta, Kristin Griffith, Haley Bennett, Harry Melling, Pokey LaFarge
Director: Antonio Campos
Screenwriters: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos
Producers: Randall Poster, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Max Born
Executive producers: Jared Goldman, Marc A. Hammer, Annie Marter
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer: Craig Lathrop
Costume designer: Emma Potter
Editor: Sofia Subercaseaux
Composers: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Casting director: Douglas Aibel
Rated R, 138 minutes