Unmasking evil: ‘DEVIL ALL THE TIME’ director finds light amid darkness

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Watching Antonio Campos’ new unsettler, Netflix’s The Devil All the Time, reveals many things. Not only does it shine a light on the shadows of human nature, but it also shows how fearless of a filmmaker Campos is. Particular images are difficult to shake (especially one involving a dog). No matter how wicked, no scene is there to merely serve as an exercise in audience limitations. Purpose bleeds throughout, in big and small ways.

Based on the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock (also the film’s narrator), The Devil All the Time concerns many generations impacted by violence living in Southern Ohio and West Virginia. Starring Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, and Riley Keough, among many other notable talents, Campos chronicles how faith and evil twists like a double helix. Holy men commit terrible crimes, and followers muddy the waters of life and death. Murder and secrets flow strong, but truth floats to the surface.

In a recent interview with us, Campos spoke about what we can uncover in his unflinching film and how he incorporated details worth multiple viewings.

Preston Barta: There’s a moment in the film where Sandy, played by Riley Keough, is looking at a collection of photos. These photos show men that Sandy and her husband (Jason Clarke) murdered. She’s looking through these and smiling. For anyone who sees the film they know how these events do not truly represent her. The fact that she smiles at these photos, possibly thinking about it being the victims’ final moments of happiness, is such a minor detail that says so much about her character. At what point in your career did you recognize that these small moments can be such a gift?

Antonio Campos: “It’s funny, you wrestle with it. You wrestle with how subtle or not to be with certain things because you don’t want things to get missed. I’ve always put trust in an audience paying attention and that they aren’t going to miss something. However, sometimes I wrestled with how on the nose or not on the nose to be with some things.”

“My favorite filmmakers are not the ones that telegraph what they’re trying to do. They make an audience sit on the edge of their seat or activate the audience by asking them to pay closer attention to the movie, and you reward them by doing so because there’s so much work put into every single detail of this movie.”

“There are so many layers at play. So, this movie works if you’re sitting back and just letting the thing happen. It is designed to keep moving at a relentless pace. But if you are focused on it or you go back for a second viewing, there is a ton going on in every frame. A lot is going on in the design of every sequence.”

Oh, wow. So, you are thinking about what an audience member may pick up after multiple viewings?

“I mean, I love the idea that this is a film people will have an easy time watching again just because it’s on Netflix. It’s there forever. You either watch the whole thing again or watch individual sequences. It’s a film you’re rewarded by watching it again because there’s so much going on. It was just very meticulously made across the board from not only the crew but also the actors and everything they put into their characters.”

Bill Skarsgård as Willard Russell, Haley Bennett as Charlotte Russell. Photo Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2020

From that, I can only imagine you’re a very meticulous film watcher who likes to dig into themes, dissect the meanings behind images, and figure out why filmmakers decide to shoot things a particular way. You watch film commentaries and bonus features a lot, or do you distance yourself now as an artist?

“Yeah. I’m a father now. I have a two-year-old, and it is so much harder to find the time, but I was watching a lot. So much of my film education was watching bodies of work, watching films over and over and over again, and then watching films with commentary, which I always felt like, ‘Wow. What a gift?’ It’s so cool that someone sat down to talk through their process with you. So many great directors have done that with their movies. That’s the thing that I am always dying to know: What did they think when they were doing this shot? What did they say to that actor right before they got this iconic performance?’”

“I also love finding books about filmmakers by filmmakers. So, if anybody has written an autobiography, I always try to get that. And if they have the movies broken down by chapter, I always love to watch the movie and then read the chapter in the book. It gives you so much insight. Even if all you learn is, ‘Oh, they think the same way that I think.’ It just reaffirms that maybe you’re doing things the right way or you’re on the right path.”

Did you take influence from other places to tap into this film’s poetic nature? Obviously, you have the source material, but many visual moments come full circle that go beyond the text. For instance, again with Sandy, she’s looking up at the top of the trees. That image reappears down the road during a pivotal scene. 

“Some of it is on the day. You start to notice things, and you react to them. That’s part of what’s fun about making movies: you’re living the thing and that you’re, all of a sudden, not alone in your room working on a script but surrounded by so many talented people who have all absorbed the material and have so many really cool ideas. So, a lot of inspiration comes from the collaborative process and allowing yourself to be open to new ideas.”

“Outside of the source material, it was looking at photography. We looked at Andrew Wyeth paintings and William Eggleston photographs. Their work set a lot of the tone and the palette of the movie. We also looked at Sally Mann’s photography, which is very haunting and evocative.”

“We were always looking for that kind of poetry, wherever it revealed itself. If this is the kind of feeling that this artwork or photography or movie evokes, I will make myself more open to that and look for opportunities to explore that feeling. That’s how it works for me, at least. You know what you’re looking for and know what feelings you want to get, and then you look for places where that reveals itself.”

As we wrap up, what would you say is the greatest truth you learned about human nature after doing this film?

“That every character, no matter how despicable they seem, is worth spending time with to try and understand. Even if what you’ve come out with is that they are fundamentally bad people, at least you can understand how they got there. And maybe that informs something else bigger about bigger problems in society and the human condition.”

Perhaps we all need Donald Ray Pollock to narrate our lives to reveal our truths.

“Exactly! Yeah. We all need somebody from Knockemstiff, Ohio, to get into our brains.”

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

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.