THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME: An Epic of Midwestern Misery That Comes Full Circle

Antonio Campos’ saga of interconnected tragedy is a satisfying, exhausting reckoning of all-American ambition

Beginning in the years just after World War II with haunted veteran Willard (Bill Skarsgard) and continuing along through the Vietnam War with his son Arvin (Tom Holland), The Devil All The Time casts a wandering eye on the souls that crisscross the backroads between Cold Creek, West Virginia and Knockemstiff, Ohio. There’s also a gospel preacher by way of a simpering Elvis (Robert Pattinson), a pair of cuckolding shutterbug serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) who pick off hitchhiking “models,” and a small town cop ambitious to become his town’s next Sheriff by any means necessary (Sebastian Stan). While blood and friendly ties unite a handful of them, most of these characters will remain blissfully unaware of the festering connections between them until the few moments before they meet their maker.

There’s a justified jadedness in how most cinema’s treated American nostalgia. Films like Night of the Hunter, Blue Velvet, The Virgin Suicides, any book of Stephen King’s you can pull off the shelf, to the currently-airing Lovecraft Country — all encourage a voyeuristic glimpse at the vices and traumas that linger behind the veil of American wholesomeness. With a collective blind trust in our families, the law, religion, and other institutions we trust to keep our shaky world together that progressively eroded in the years since World War II and especially after Vietnam, there’s much to dismantle and critique in how such picturesque beauty occluded the darker parts of human nature. While most films in this area take umbrage at more nebulous time periods in this era, it’s particularly interesting how The Devil All the Time situates itself in between the one of the most cinematically idealized Wars and a conflict whose mass bloodshed and ideological failures led to a noted disillusionment towards American exceptionalism. Here, amidst a mess of conflicted, gruesome characters hiding behind masks of virtue, Antonio Campos illustrates a complex, jaded ethos that tries to rectify personal ambitions with cosmic insignificance.

In the wake of one of The Devil All the Time’s numerous senseless tragedies, career-driven Sheriff tries to console a grieving boy that, well, “some people are just born to be buried.” It’s a heartless, impersonal ethos — but one that many of the film’s characters irresistibly take to heart. Skarsgard’s Willard sacrifices Arvin’s dog in a doomed attempt to trade its life for his dying wife’s; Pattinson’s Preacher Teagardin creates a revolving door of abuse victims among his congregation, protected by his patriarchal power over the community like a wolf preaching to sheep; Stan’s authority as a Sheriff only goes as far as his own personal business interests, victims be damned; and, in acts that lead the film’s narrator to brand him a “sick fuck,” Clarke’s Carl captures his victims’ last moments in snapshots to get closer to God — as if this act of simultaneous creation and destruction may imbue him with the same sense of omniscient power. Most, if not all of the characters of The Devil All the Time use each other to move onto greater things that they believe are owed them. One by one, though, these characters meet their own undoing — often by each others’ hands in a fatalistic game of dominoes masquerading as coincidence. There’s always a sense of a greater, more nihilistic power at work, reveling in the characters’ blindness to the ties that bind them — by effect, the American dream of individual success, power, and self-worth becomes nothing more than a ritualized sense of denial.

The cast sells this spectrum between delusion, dour acceptance, and rebellious rage well — of particular note are Pattinson’s skin-crawling preacher, Eliza Scanlen’s unabashedly pious Lenora as his victim, Holland’s vengeful, rebellious Arvin, Bill Skarsgard’s wounded, ferocious Willard, and Harry Melling’s murderously self-deluded messiah figure. All five sincerely devote themselves to the fickle world they inhabit, either trying to somehow coax the world to bend to their will, to understand its meaningless machinations, or survive whatever curveballs threaten to knock them off their feet. All the players, though, imbue their roles with a consistent sense of ambitious yet self-defeating naivety, eager to see more of the world that exists beyond their reach but just as eager to engage in self-destructive acts that keep them rooted firmly in place. While some stories may feel more imbalanced than others, Campos bobs and weaves between their story to keep this sense of potentially monotonous cosmic inevitability threaded with a wonderful amount of suspense and unpredictability, not to mention a wickedly engaging lurid pulpiness that others might discard in favor of more aims fitting of other prestige ensemble dramas.

Where The Devil All the Time falters most, though, is in the world these characters inhabit. While production designer Craig Lathrop’s meticulously detailed sets and Lol Crowley’s love of both magic-hour and grimy overcast cinematography both deserve commendation, one can’t help but feel that the worlds of Coal Creek, Meade, and Knockemstiff exist in more of an Americana amalgamation of pop culture influences than period America proper. Campos creates such a microscopic view of Midwestern Gothic whose actions and consequences feel far too, well, deliberately isolated from real-world consequences. Despite short years of collecting fourteen noted victims in a seemingly clustered area, Clarke and Keough’s serial killers don’t seem to rise to expected infamy — even as Keough anonymously tips off authorities where to find their bodies. And despite the variation of racial and class strata that existed within West Virginia and Ohio through the 1960s, the three cities of The Devil All the Time feel like one homogenous entity, as if these locations were separated more out of storytelling necessity rather than out of significant thematic concern — with all taking on the generic identity of crumbling, White Anytown, USA. In differentiating itself from similar jaded films like the ones described above, this lack of defining identity seriously kneecaps Campos’ film from making as lasting of an emotional impact as it so clearly labors to do. It’s hard to give a damn about a sense of national generational trauma when it’s too universal and generic to establish a deep emotional specificity.

Which, thankfully, is where Campos’ adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel picks up most of the slack. While the characters’ world may feel disconnected from the world at large, Campos and his brother Paulo Campos make their situations feel like an increasingly closing circle that, by the end, swallows up all but one of them whole. Throughout, each of them faces situations that create an engaging dialogue with the audience about whether things like retribution or revenge are only satisfying or meaningful if their full value is understood by other people. In a world that feels so hell-bent on crushing them under its wheel, what does it mean to finally get the karmic closure or comeuppance that they strive for?

The answers, and their relative validity, varies for each of The Devil All the Time’s wicked souls — but the arduous and rewarding impact of the journey towards them is one that cannot be denied.

The Devil All the Time is now available to stream on Netflix.

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