If you haven’t actually read any Southern Gothic literature, it’s easy to get the wrong idea. Considering the European Gothic tradition, the mind naturally envisages ominous plantation houses with mad women locked in the attic, immaculately dressed men with dark secrets and bloody pasts and maybe even the odd ghost rattling its chains. Barring the odd Absalom, Absalom! however, Southern Gothic is interested in a more financially embarrassed class of person. Desperate sharecroppers, leering farmhands and sinister ministers people an accursed version of the South that makes Deliverance look like a tourist promotion. Whilst Antonio Campos’s The Devil All The Time might be set on the borderline between Virginia and Ohio, in their hearts the poor unfortunates who make up the cast are citizens of Faulkner’s benighted Yoknapatawpha County.
Before we get to the meat of the film, a disclaimer is required: this is a grisly proposition of a film, filled with filth, brutal violence and old time religion. It’s also nearly two and a half hours long (though the plot is so propulsive that the film feels half that length). Whilst there is definitely light and plenty of excitement to be found (this certainly isn’t The Painted Bird level misery porn) the length coupled with the darkness of the subject matter will definitely be a turn-off for many. Viewers who stick around, however, will be treated to a little dark jewel of a film that hybridizes Southern Gothic and Crime into strong medicine with a serious kick.
Set in webwork of Appalachian shacks and bars with the delightful name of Knockemstiff, The Devil All The Time spans from 1945-1965, but the mountain enclave seems to exist independently of America, with its own hard-bitten culture and taboos. The story is based on a Donald Ray Pollock (who serves as a frequently hilarious narrator) novel, which is extremely episodic. Campos compresses events so that, with a couple of niggling exceptions, it feels like one continuous narrative where fate and dumb bad luck slowly sets the cast on a fatal collision course. Our initial guide to Knockemstiff is Willard Russell (a suitably bug-eyed Bill Skarsgaard), a GI returning from WWII. During the war Willard came across a fellow soldier who had been captured by the Japanese, who flayed him alive and crucified him, and the memory haunts both the young man and the viewer. Campos is a visual craftsman with a real gift for striking sequences and the movie teems with the kind of fervid nightmare imagery that would set Carl Jung’s pulse racing. From a preacher showing his faith to a congregation by pouring an entire jar full of spiders onto his face, to a decaying dog nailed to a cross like a canine Christ; the feel careens through centerpiece scenes roughly every ten minutes. The film looks fantastic, and with the murderers row of acting talent and a sharp script The Devil All The Time has a lot to offer anyone who can get on its snarling wavelength.
The haunted Willard finds a lovely young wife and sires a son Alvin (Tom Holland, at a career best) who attempts to indoctrinate a rather bizarre personal take on Christianity. Less concerned with finding redemption than the importance of blood sacrifice during moments of high stress, Alvin is the film’s real focus and Holland’s tough yet vulnerable young man doesn’t have an easy run of things. Hardened by a tragically interrupted childhood, he dedicates himself to protecting the small circle of individuals he feels affinity with, namely the orphaned Lenora. Lenora is frequently the target of thuggish bullies, but more insidiously she has come to the attention of the narcissistic preacher Preston Teagardin (played with skin crawling reptilian brio by Robert Pattinson) who snidely wields scripture like a cat-o-nine tails. Beyond Alvin’s immediate concerns is the corrupt Sheriff Boedecker, who’s deep in hock to the Appalachian mafia and whose sister trawls the backroads with her murderous husband looking for hitchhikers who won’t be missed. It’s not a friendly little town, putting it mildly. Those with authority use it exclusively for their own benefit and any crime short of murder seems to be beneath the police’s attention.
If you think the film sounds a little crowded, you aren’t wrong. As mentioned earlier, Campos did a great job condensing the wandering novel into a single narrative that is practically straining at the leash to get its teeth into you. However there is definitely a feeling of maybe one storyline too many, and whilst the serial killer subplot has its moments, it feels like cutting it might have removed the slackening pace in the third act when the script laboriously manoeuvres everyone into the right place. Perhaps retaining Donald Ray Pollock’s services as narrator left Campos feeling like he couldn’t take the saw to the writer’s work. At any rate this is certainly not a dealbreaker; the film has built up such momentum it’s able to power through the set dressing without derailing.
The novel was a horrific affair and whilst The Devil All The Time isn’t exactly Guys and Dolls (unless Guys and Dolls had a crucified dog subplot which I’m forgetting), a lot of the really gratuitous stuff is cut for the screen. This is probably all to the good; the novel pitched a world of unending darkness that echoed with the absence of God. Whilst the cinematic Knockemstiff is still an uncompromisingly violent place, the film raises the possibility of escape. Even if that escape is just the realization that there’s a wider world outside the town’s dark orbit. Cincinnati might not be your idea of the promised land, but in Knockemstiff they take what they can get.
The Devil All The Time
Director: Antonio Campos
Running Time: 138 minutes
Available on Netflix