‘The Devil All the Time’ is a well-crafted, exceedingly grim slow burn

“The Devil All the Time” – At the 46-minute mark of director Antonio Campos’ film adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s debut 2011 novel, Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) sheepishly smiles when his aunt brings out a cake with a lit candle on his birthday.  As an audience, let’s also celebrate the occasion, because this moment is one of the very few on-screen smiles offered in “The Devil All the Time”, a rough-and-tumble, exceedingly grim step into noir.  It’s a picture that might leave you depressed and reduced to near-zero hope for humanity.  The story’s timeframe runs during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  That was a long time ago, and the United States has enjoyed 50-plus years of social progress and change to point to with pride.  Look at where we stand as a country in 2020, and—   Well, never mind.  Let’s move on.

Yes, let’s move on to the American Midwest, and – more specifically – to West Virginia and Ohio.  While in the Buckeye State, the movie’s events play out in Knockemstiff, and the town’s name seems appropriate.  During yesterdecade, everyday men settle conflicts with their fists rather than extended discourse and debate.  In other circles, an existing personal strife isn’t the only affair that could trigger violence.  In Campos’ film, hitchhiking is hazardous, and organized crime and community leaders cross blurred lines or practice full – although not exactly willful – cooperation.  As the homeland copes with duress – including economic hardships – overseas wars serve as the narrative’s bookends.

For Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard), his troubles begin on the Solomon Islands during WWII.  He witnesses a solitary, horrific act that haunts him for years.  Finding a therapist on Google wasn’t a thing back then, and neither was opening up to family and friends.  No one defined post-traumatic stress disorder, so for some men returning home from war, shell shock or battle fatigue were their diagnoses.

Perhaps, church is a refuge towards normalcy, but after attending Roy Laferty’s (Harry Melling) unsettling guest sermon, turning to one’s faith might not offer a comforting remedy.  Religion serves as the central theme in “The Devil All the Time”.  After digesting this 138-minute unsettling – and occasionally explosive – downer, it feels like an anti-religious tale, but Skarsgard offers a different explanation.

“The book isn’t a comment on religion, as much as it’s a comment on what people do with religions,” he said.

Skarsgard is right, and he changed this critic’s perspective.  The movie follows this mantra as well, and Rev. Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) delivers a prime example.  Pattinson is a bit off-the-charts and downright mesmerizing as an off-kilter preacher who holds his own demented best interests in mind rather than his flocks’ needs.  Geez, the good reverend isn’t the only one, because several others with varying degrees of power – throughout the picture – carry directionless moral compasses too.

In a Sept. 14 interview, Campos said that he wanted Pattinson to “swing for the fences” as Teagardin, and he added, “That was the mandate across the board.  Everyone pushed themselves.”

The all-star cast took Campos’ words to heart, as Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, and Sebastian Stan deliver standout performances.  From time to time, this ensemble picture feels like a depraved Robert Altman flick, as the characters in power run roughshod over those without megaphones.

The followers need voices, and Arvin hopefully finds his.  Holland is particularly good here, as a young man swallowing his pain and desperately searching for an outlet to release it.  Well, a specific gesture on his aforementioned birthday could prove to be his needed push.

⭐⭐⭐  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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