The Devil All the Time (dir. Antonio Campos, 2020) – A young man devotes to protecting his loved ones in a rural town shaped by war and violence.
On the battlefield, Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) stares at the half-dead sergeant, mutilated and crucified by Japanese soldiers. He pulls out his gun and puts an end to the man’s misery. The traumatic memory will cast a shadow on him for the rest of his life.
He is granted a reprieve when he meets diner waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett) and falls in love. They move to the rural town of Knockemstiff and start a family. But when Charlotte is stricken by cancer, the feeling of being powerless comes back to haunt the veteran. His fervent prayers go unanswered, his sacrifices unseen.
In portraying these desperate moments, The Devil All the Time is relentless. The cycle of violence feels perpetual, one brutal act leading onto the next. The overwhelming sense of melancholy spans two decades. Willard’s son Arvin (Tom Holland) grows up, haunted by the sins of his father, as though they are the only familial legacy to be handed down from one generation to the next.
Darkness also has a hold on other men of faith beyond the Russell family. Of which the most startling crimes belong to evangelical preacher Roy Lafferty (Harry Melling) and Reverend Preston (Robert Pattinson). In positions of respect, they misuse the trust of their community. They commit acts of pure evil, using religion to justify their own inclination towards iniquity.
Them, alongside corrupt cop Deputy Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) and serial killer couple Sandy and Carl (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke), make for a cast of vile and unsympathetic characters. Their logic is perverse, their thoughts unreasoned. It is a difficult watch when there is no one to root for, save for Arvin whose youth still allows him a fork in the road ahead of him.
But as grim as things are, Antonio Campos’ film remains compelling. Not for the retribution that often feels less cathartic than inadequate. Not simply for how well-acted it is. Rather, the brilliantly crafted story appeals to our intrinsic fascination with our capacity for brutality as Man – whether driven by an innate impiety for some or fostered by circumstances.
Such varied motivations make for a sprawling film. The threads are tied together thematically, in how bad choices seem intrinsically connected to faith. How easy it would be to let the Devil’s tempting bear the brunt of blame for the evil that men do. But the monsters beneath the earth have nothing on the lurking ones we have within each and every one of us.
Necessarily bleak and provocative, The Devil All the Time remains gripping in its delve into complex motifs of violence and faith.