Director: Antonio Campos
Writer: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson
Producer: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Randall Poster, Max Born
Streaming Platform: Netflix
An intergenerational story has a charm unlike no other when it is done well. When you finish the film, you end up with a character so battered by time and circumstances, for a second your mind wanders towards that character in the very beginning of that film, so untouched by the grime of life. My stomach-pit dropped a few inches after Boyhood– often such films have such an effect.
Antonio Campos’ The Devil All The Time (based on the namesake book by Donald Ray Pollock) if not as melancholic or meticulous, is certainly as effective. It is a bloody, but meditative take on justice, faith, and family, and despite spanning two generations, it is patient in its pace – it gives its characters a few more seconds of close-up to react than you as a viewer are used to. It’s not quick in raising its point, because perhaps the point is the winding, arbitrary, serendipitous nature of time.
There are four strands to the story: Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a godless World War 2 veteran, comes back, falls in love with an altruistic waitress, marries, begets a son Arvin, and finds god in the interim. This was the generation that came back from World War 2, finding meaning in a secure life, a house in their name, a family, decent pay. Decades later the ramifications of the Vietnam War would be the exact opposite- people would find meaning in free-love, the hippie generation that deeply distrusted any institution- of faith, of governance, of family. The Devil All The Time plays in the interim of these two bulwarks. In a sense, I think this movie is a rationalization for the Hippie Generation. All the above mentioned institutions, faith, governance, and family, are faulted to the hilt in this tale.
Another strand is of Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), a rabid believer with sunken eyes who pours spiders over himself to prove that god has rid him of his arachnophobia. He marries a girl from Willard’s parish and begets a daughter, Lenora. He represents the worst excesses of unquestioned faith.
The third strand is of Arvin and Lenora as they grow up together. Tom Holland plays Arvin, grown-up, and Eliza Scanlen plays Lenora. Arvin’s lost soul is tumbling like America’s own soul in the deeply nihilistic forests of Vietnam. Lenora, deeply devout, finds herself fixating on the new preacher for their parish, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), best described by Arvin as a “pus-gutted blowhard”. He represents the worst excesses of unquestioned power.
The fourth strand is of Sandy and Carl (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke), a voyeuristic, murderous couple who trap hitchhikers in their car roving the highways, only to have them killed after Carl photographs them having sex with Sandy. It’s all polaroid. Sandy is Sheriff Lee Bodecker’s sister, and so there is that tension of exposition baked into this plot-line of politics and police. This strand weaves in and out of the narrative.
As you can imagine, this 2 hour 18 minute film is packed with sinister intentions and sinister characters. Sometimes, it takes you a second to get a grip of the tale, you feel it slipping under the weight of its populous ambition. This is gun-country, blood-laden, between Ohio and West Virginia- it’s Christinity and coal. At one point, a character articulates, “Some people are born just so they can be buried.” This is a film of as much birth as burial. It can tire the impatient, but if endured has a pay-off of that sinking gut I mentioned earlier on.
There is a lot of suicide in this film- accidental, performative, self-sacrificing. There is a lot of death otherwise too- cancer, gunshots, knife punctures. A lot of it is preempted by the narrator, the author of the book, Pollock in a gruff, saintly, all-knowing voice. So you are not as shocked by the deaths as much as you are by the method of it. Backstories are articulated later in flash-backs and flash-forwards, and I think this is where the story feels too hurried in an otherwise languid film. The skipping of timelines, however, stops an hour or so into the film, and the narrative bumps smooth out. The violence that cascades generations is gutting, but ultimately the messaging works- Arvin’s father had violence built into him by the war. Arvin wants to unshackle himself from such built-in violence, apologetic about gunning down people in a desperate act of justice. It is then that it struck me, that this whole movie was not about violence, but about justice. Violence is not the theme here, but a simple means to an end. The film begins with young Arvin’s black eye. The film ends with an adolescent weary one. Between the two, Arvin found justice, or some semblance of it.