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On Netflix: THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020)

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THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME
(US - 2020)

Directed by Antonio Campos. Written by Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos. Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Harry Melling, Eliza Scanlen, Douglas Hodge, Kristin Griffith, Pokey LaFarge, David Atkinson, Michael Banks Repeta, Gregory Kelly, David Maldonado, Michael Harding, Lucy Faust, Abby Glover, Zack Shires, Ivan Hoey Jr, Drew Starkey. (R, 138 mins)

Based on a 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, whose bleak rural noirs set in the colorfully-named southern Ohio town of Knockemstiff have often been termed "hillbilly gothic" by literary critics, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME presents a relentlessly grim, fatalistic tableau that, despite the change in medium, unfolds with the precision and patience of a riveting page-turner. There's enough going on here that director/co-writer Antonio Campos (2016's criminally underseen CHRISTINE, a haunting biopic of Florida news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who infamously committed suicide on live TV in 1974) could've easily turned it into a Netflix miniseries instead of a Netflix original film, but it manages to cover everything it needs to in its never-dull 138 minutes. THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME jumps around for much of its first half, going back and forth from 1945 to 1957 to 1965 in a way that can be initially disorienting but eventually works everything out as the various characters, their connections, and their situations are put into play. The main character--troubled loner Arvin Russell (Tom Holland)--doesn't even take center stage until 45 minutes in, and to get a grasp on who he is, we must first learn about his father Willard (Bill Skarsgard), a quietly shell-shocked WWII vet who fought in the South Pacific, haunted by the mercy-killing of an American soldier he found crucified, barely alive, and being slowly devoured by flies. Discharged and en route to his home in the podunk West Virginia town of Coal Creek, the shy Willard stops at a diner in Knockemstiff and is immediately smitten with kind-hearted waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett). They eventually marry and live in a house on a hill above Knockemstiff, and she soon gives birth to Arvin.






Willard remains troubled by his wartime experiences, and despite his devoutly Christian ways, he teaches nine-year-old Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) that if anyone starts something with you, be sure to finish it, which he demonstrates by nearly beating two local yokels to death after they make derogatory comments about Charlotte. Rapidly going off the deep end, Willard builds a large cross on the back of his property, where he takes Arvin on nightly trips of emphatic prayer, which increase in frequency and intensity when Charlotte is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Arvin will eventually be sent to Coal Creek to live with his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and his uncle Earskill (David Atkinson), who have adopted an orphaned baby named Lenora. Cut to 1965 as Vietnam is beginning dominate the news, with Arvin (Holland takes over the role at this point) and now-teenage Lenora (LITTLE WOMEN's Eliza Scanlan) sharing a close sibling bond that's tested with the arrival of new preacher Preston Teagardin (a reptilian Robert Pattinson), who opens his first Sunday service by passive-aggressively insulting the fried chicken livers prepared by an embarrassed Emma for a potluck dinner, the only meat she could afford at the butcher shop. Other characters drift in and out of the narrative, including Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough), husband-and-wife serial killers who pick up male hitchhikers (calling them "models") and stage sexually explicit photos before Carl kills them; corrupt sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan); Lenora's birth parents, insane fire-and-brimstone religious fanatic Roy Laferty (Harry Melling) and his demure, wallflower wife Helen (Mia Wasikowska); and Knockemstiff pimp and white trash crime lord Tater Brown (Douglas Hodge), who's got Bodecker's nuts in a vice.


At some point early in the third act, you'll see where the story is taking Arvin, who takes his father's lessons to heart in the way he's hellbent on finishing shit that other people start. Not only does Campos do a masterful job of vividly capturing the atmosphere of rural southern Ohio from the '40s to the '60s, but THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME also shows characters in a perpetual cycle of hopelessness, almost imprisoned by fate. Repeated cycles of violence and tragedy are handed down like family curses, and a propensity for always making the worst decisions seems like a genetic pre-disposition for everyone. Campos has created what plays a lot like a Derek Cianfrance downer that's particularly reminiscent in tone and structure to 2013's THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, especially with a lead character switch and a main star's unexpected exit around the 45-minute mark.


Skarsgard's taciturn, tightly-wound performance echoes the kind of peculiar eccentricity of the Michael Shannon of a decade ago, while Holland keeps Arvin's rage at a constant low boil, never exploding but always letting you see it growing in his eyes. Some of the ensemble--Bennett and Wasikowska, for example--aren't onscreen long enough to make a big impression, but whoever cast the unique-looking Melling and Scanlen as father-and-daughter is a genius. The biggest impression left by the supporting cast comes from Pattinson, who continues to establish himself as one of the most versatile and chameleon-like actors around with his loathsome, manipulative preacher, seducing a teenage parishioner and smugly trying to skate out of an unintended consequence with "How can you be pregnant when all we did was spend time with the Lord?" THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is certain to provoke divisive reactions and one can argue that it has a couple more subplots than it really needs, but the degree of detail and characterization are testaments to Campos' dedication to the world-building essential to Pollock's writing, and it gets an added bit of authenticity from having the author narrate as well.


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