Once again, a troupe of actors has gone humping up to Appalachia, carrying with them banjo-twang accents, some sounding almost swallowed by gravel, all determined to tell a story of life in the lonely wild. We’ve seen this before, and will soon see it again in the upcoming Hillbilly Elegy. The current film in question, Netflix’s The Devil All the Time (out September 16), would seem to exhaust all potential cliches in perpetuity, though—at least those of the gothic thriller variety. Antonio Campos’s film, adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel, shows us every manner of backwoods shock and depravity. It makes for a heady, unappetizing stew.
By my count, the women of The Devil All the Time experience the following: death by cancer, death by suicide, death by murder, rape, and another murder. The men don’t fare much better: they’re shot, maimed, and tortured. Even a dog meets a gruesome end. This is all, I guess, supposed to communicate some sort of gritty truth. Existence was hard in the misty hollers of West Virginia and Southeast Ohio back in the 1950s and ’60s, a scramble through a muck of religious hypocrisy and other predation that landed pretty much everyone facedown in the mud. Campos—whose previous film, Christine, employed a more thoughtful touch to dark material—revels in all this squalor while trying to maintain a grave face, feigning a solemn reverence for all this terrible, inevitable ruin.
Most of The Devil All the Time is classist cruelty, a total failure to see any humanity in most of its poor, ailing characters. They are victims or victimizers, without much agency beyond that. The real problem is, the film doesn’t seem to have any interest in even trying to locate a deeper sense of personhood. It’s quite content to tell its gnarly story of grim, interconnected fates and have that stand in for the profound. Intricately crafted as it is, Campos’s film is downright simple. It’s sloppy pulp packaged as prestige, which makes the meanness of its condescending gaze that much meaner.
The film is a story of two generations. A WW II vet (don’t worry! There is a horrifying war scene too; the violence isn’t contained to America), Willard (Bill Skarsgård), is on his way home to West Virginia when he meets a pretty waitress, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), and decides he’s going to marry her. The two settle in an Ohio holler called Knockemstiff, the setting of another of Pollock’s books, based loosely on his own experience growing up in the titular town. Willard and Charlotte’s chance encounter sets in motion, or rather happens alongside, several others. Sultry Sandy (Riley Keough) meets menacing Carl (Jason Clarke) at the same diner at the same time and things go haywire. Mousy Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who was maybe sorta supposed to marry Willard, instead meets and marries creepy zealot Roy (Harry Melling), and things go haywire.
These threads twist and tangle into the next generation, when Willard and Charlotte’s son, Arvin (Tom Holland), has gone to live with his grandmother, alongside an orphan, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). A slippery, wicked reverend, Preston (Robert Pattinson), snakes his way into the story, while Sandy’s brother, crooked sheriff Lee (Sebastian Stan), prowls around the periphery. We are meant to see in this ragged tapestry some pattern of inherited trauma and violence, perhaps telling us something real and troubling about America. To his credit, Campos does not over-gesture toward the story’s bigger meaning, if it has one. If there isn’t anything lurking beneath the surface of the movie, I can’t fathom what the point of it all is.