Dir: Antonio Campos. Starring: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson. 18 cert, 138 mins
Netflix’s The Devil All the Time is a film of devastating isolation; the woods that surround these towns seem hungry, ready to close in. There’s thick dust in the air. The first thing we hear is a cracked, slow voice. It introduces us to the time, 1957, and the places; the exquisitely named Knockemstiff, Ohio, and Coal Creek, West Virginia. The voice belongs to Donald Ray Pollock, the American author who penned the “mid-western Gothic” tale Antonio Campos here adapts for the screen. Pollock is wise and strange, occasionally foul-mouthed (he suggests one of his characters “smelled worse than a truck stop sh***er”). You can imagine him spinning this tale while sitting in an old rocking chair, on the porch of a family home. But he meanders, too, as if he were trying to recollect some half-forgotten past.
The film follows several interlocking stories, stretched out between these two entirely unremarkable towns. The epicentre of events is the Russell family, outcasts in Knockemstiff for the simple reason that everyone else is “connected by blood or by one godforsaken calamity or another”. The father, Willard (Bill Skarsgard), a veteran of the Pacific theatre, has gained new zealotry for the Christian faith. He hopes it will protect his wife (Haley Bennett) and their son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta). Willard’s mother had once hoped he’d wed Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a local orphan who falls for a local evangelist (Harry Melling), whose trick is to tip a bucket of spiders on his head in order to prove God has taken away his fears.
We meet Arvin when he’s older (and played by Tom Holland), now the close confidant and protector of Helen’s child, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), a pious, nervous girl who’s utterly devoted to her mother. A pair of killers stalk the roads between the two towns. Sandy (Riley Keough), the “bait”, and Carl (Jason Clarke), the “shooter”, seduce hitchhikers, snap them in compromising positions, and then end their lives. Robert Pattinson makes a late appearance as a slimy preacher. With a sweaty lip and wheezed screams of “delusions!”, the actor knows how to make himself a truly unlikeable presence.
Campos, who co-wrote the script with his brother Paulo, flits between these stories – he reveals that a character will die, then suddenly abandons their story, only to return 20 minutes later to fill in the details. The effect is disorientating. He rushes through the first hour, treating it almost like a prologue so that he can squeeze in all of Pollock’s book and stay faithful to its vision. But what the director may lack in pacing, he makes up for in heady, mythic atmosphere.
For these characters live under the eye of an uncaring god; they die for him, they kill for him, they use his name to protect their hypocrisies. “This was the one true religion,” Pollock says of Carl’s bloodlust. “Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.” The shadow of the Vietnam War creeps into the frame. Campos’s cast is a collection of Hollywood’s most haunted-looking eyes. Skarsgard, Keough and Wasikowska all look like they’ve fallen headfirst out of a Gothic chiller.
Skarsgard’s Willard is haunted by a wartime memory – a soldier on a cross, flies circling his flayed body, as he gasps for breath. In his later life, he finds a ghoulish way to replicate the image. But Campos never gives such horrors the space they deserve. They’re dealt with quickly, almost casually brushed aside, so that the story can keep barreling forward. It’s hard, too, to feel like you’re staring into the heart of darkness when the film’s central character is played by someone like Holland. He’s a deeply charismatic actor having a stab at a darker role but who can’t quite shake off his trademark earnestness. When The Devil All the Time does plunge into the moral abyss, it’s intoxicating – if only it did it more often.
The Devil All the Time is available to watch on Netflix now