[REVIEW] ‘The Devil All the Time’ a gothic tale bolstered by one hell of an ensemble

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME

Rated R, 138 minutes.
Director: Antonio Campos
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Harry Melling, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson

Translating material from one medium to another is never easy. Take a book. A fictional narrative contains thoughts and ideas that are tough to convey in a visual framework. David Ray Pollack’s novel THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is a taut work, brimming with colorful prose that paints a not-too-rosy picture of life in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia. The towns have a lingering smell of rotten eggs. The hardscrabble characters – some pious, others as lascivious as Lucifer – move through life about as far as a pawn on a chessboard.

Reading an excerpt from the first chapter, Pollack takes the reader into the minds of various personalities. Did we really need to know that a bus driver who lived right outside of Philadelphia would rather have a bullet in the brain than to live in a place like Meade, Ohio? I thought to myself: Probably not, but the admission made by the novel’s omnipresent narrator provides little quirks that stick to you about as firmly as a Garfield plush toy in a car window.

Director Antonio Campos (2016’s CHRISTINE) and his brother, Paulo, penned this gothic novel’s adaptation. Timelines jump around, characters come and go. For those that stick around, their trajectory (in the eyes of the Lord or the Devil) webs and snakes along the farm roads and townships of a lonesome America.

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is definitely not a feel-good time. Instead of Prada, the devils wear sweat-stained dungarees or drive a car that’s as white as a newly painted picket fence. And for one soul who could give a rats about the Good Book, his knuckles look like they’ve met the serrated edges of a cheese grater – the spillover effects from punching those who harass his sister.

Everything has a lived-in feel about it, from the style of dress to old farmhouses with bowing hardwood floors and piddling lawns.

Bill Skarsgård, as Willard Russell, survives fighting in the South Pacific. On the way home back home, he meets a woman (Haley Bennet) serving patrons at a greasy spoon who would soon become his wife. It should be happily ever after and all that schmaltz until she develops cancer. Forever haunted by the marine he came across skinned alive by the Japanese and nailed to a makeshift cross, Russell commits a sacrifice to save his wife. (The shocking episode is likely to discourage viewers from watching another minute.)

Mia Wasikowska’s Helen Hatton falls for Roy Laferty (Henry Mulling – best remembered playing Harry Potter’s spoiled and insolent cousin, Dudley Dursley), who once was scared of spiders. So, he turned to the Lord to escape his fears. Finding faith, Roy started sermonizing about his affliction going as far to show parishioners just how far he had come in conquering his arachnophobia. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well for Roy and Helen.

Years later, Helen’s daughter and Russell’s son would grow up as stepsiblings. Played by Eliza Scanlen and Tom Holland in their adolescent years, their kinship may be the saintliest of all relationships represented. Holland’s Arvin is a watchful protector. As the current interpretation of the friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man, Holland trades the red-and-blue suit gifted to him by Iron Man for a denim one. Jacket and jeans: a denim tuxedo. When he sees his sister Lenora being hounded by three boys teeming with hormones, he reacts swiftly. Taking his licks – getting a shiner that only a cold, raw steak could cure (if he could afford steak) – Arvin recalls his father’s advice in dispensing payback. Being gifted a family heirloom would chart his destiny in becoming a violent avenger.

Although its brutal violence, animal cruelty, and treatment of women aren’t for the faint of heart, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME sustains interest in large part because of the list of actors assembled. The cast is insane. I haven’t even mentioned Sebastian Stan as a crooked sheriff or Robert Pattinson as a wicked preacher. When first introduced, Pattinson’s grey suit is a telltale sign that he can sway towards good or evil.

Along backroads through god-fearing rural lands, lawlessness roams wild. Guiding us is a mysterious narrator, in keeping with the spirit of Pollack’s novel. It turns out, Campos reached out to the novelist himself to narrate. It’s a novel touch in allowing Pollack to lend his voice, articulating words and sentences that flow like an old, rusted water spigot. The result, though, makes for a bumpy ride, adding to a vexed viewing experience.

It didn’t bother me much. Actually, upon seeing THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, I was more inclined to read the novel to immerse myself further in these deranged characters’ lives and allow Pollack’s prose to penetrate my eyeballs.

Gritty and gothic, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is not a pleasing watch. But a talented cast playing deplorables is just enough to spark interest. Just make sure to shower afterward. You’re going to need one.

Grade: B-

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is now playing in select theaters. Available to stream on Netflix on September 16.

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