Warning: full of spoilers, fire and brimstone. Well, spoilers anyway. My review is here. Character posters are at the bottom of the page.
Despite the melodrama, multiple dead bodies and spiders, The Devil All The Time finishes – eventually – on a note that is both cathartic and hopeful.
Arvin does survive. The ending is reassuring, though with a dark cloud hanging over it.
Hitchhiking out of the woods, having dispatched Carl, Sandy and then Sheriff Bodecker – all of whom deserved it – with his dad’s Luger, he’s picked up by a hippy driving a red and white VW campervan. It’s not just a sign that life has changed now we’re halfway through the 1960s, but that Arvin has got out. It looks like the ending to a horror film, when the final girl, or boy, finally escapes the inbred psychopath in the woods. So while I breathed a sigh of relief I also wondered what last shock is approaching.
There’s no axe murderer appearing from the back seat. There is, though, a radio show playing, with President Johnson telling the country he’ll be sending more troops to Vietnam. Arvin starts to drift off but fights to stay awake; he’s learnt not to lose focus in strangers’ cars. He wonders in his mind if he’ll enlist for Vietnam, or settle down and have a family. We know this because of the narrator, who has filled in so much detail throughout the film as the audience sat agog at yet another death.
It’s a very hopeful ending and I choose to think Arvin makes it out of his youth alive. But first he’s on his way to Cincinnati, where the driver is headed.
Arvin is at the centre of the film and is its moral heart. He’s also shot and killed Rev Teagardin, Carl and Sandy, and Sheriff Brodecker, though none are in cold blood. Preston Teagardin in hot blood maybe.
In a world drenched in religion, Arvin, who may be a believer but is not remotely devout, is an avenging angel, a deliverer of justice, even if he doesn’t know it. It’s a role handed down to him by his father, once Arvin is given the Luger pistol his dad brought back from the War. You wonder if he’s still unwittingly avenging the crucified Allied soldier who followed Willard home.
The deaths in The Devil All The Time are many, one connecting to another like links in a chain. There is always some connection. Charlotte, Arvin’s mother, is found collapsed at home after Arvin watches his dad beat up the poachers. She’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and no amount of praying will save her. Desperation and PTSD drives Willard to shoot the family dog, before attaching him to the homemade cross in the woods as if crucified; he thinks a sacrifice to God will save his wife. She dies anyway, and Willard kills himself.
Aged 9, Willard goes to live with his grandmother, great uncle, and Lenora, who has been there since the disappearance of her mother Helen and father Roy when she was a baby.
Helen’s story was a tragic one. Willard’s mother wanted him to marry Helen when he returned from the war, but instead he returned to the cafe where he’d met Charlotte. Helen had instantly fallen in love with Reverend Roy Laferty anyway, who preached at their church along with his brother Theodore, who was in a wheelchair after swallowing antifreeze to prove his faith.
When Lenora was just a baby Roy murdered Helen in the woods with a screwdriver because he believed he could resurrect her through prayer; her body was discovered in a shallow grave seven years later. Roy didn’t have much time to regret his error. He was picked up by Carl and Sandy, and though he refused even to sit with Sandy, waiting in her bra on a picnic rug, Carl shot him anyway. The Lord certainly works in mysterious ways.
Leonora doesn’t even make it out of her teens. A truly devout young woman, who visits her mother’s grave each day after school, she’s soon targeted by the new reverend in town, Preston Teagardin. He abandons her once she’s pregnant, telling her to get rid of the baby, and she hangs herself in the barn. It’s actually an accident, as she decides at the last minute not to go through with it, but she stumbles and the upturned bucket she’s perched on tips over.
Arvin finds her body, and after her funeral he’s informed that she was pregnant. He takes the Luger pistol his dad brought back from the war and kills Teagardin. Hitching out of town, he’s picked up by Carl and Sandy. They later stop the car, and Carl says he wants to take some photos. As he’s walking back to the car, Arvin sees Carl’s gun and shoots him dead.
Sandy threatens him with her own gun and they fire at each other but her gun is full of blanks, put there by Carl who no longer trusts her (thank you narrator!)
Arvin shoots her dead too (there’s a lot of shooting dead going on here) then travels to the site of the home he shared on the mountain with his parents and pet dog, before everything went bad. He finds the Prayer Log and cross, and buries the dog’s bones. The house is gone now, but he finally thanks the man at the local store, who was so kind to him on the night of his father’s death all those years before. (Arvin may kill people but he’s morally good. I’d say that the other morally good people also die – Helen, Charlotte, Willard, the dog – but actually so do all the evil ones.)
Sheriff Bodecker is on to Arvin, though first he has to destroy all the photographs Carl took of dying men positioned next to his naked sister. He burns them all, so no one can find out Sandy’s true calling. He doesn’t know Arvin found one of the photos in Sandy’s car and still has it.
He tracks Arvin through the woods, but Arvin shoots him dead. He doesn’t want to and he explains to the bleeding sheriff – whom he doesn’t know has always been a crook – that he killed Carl and Sandy because he was defending himself. He waits for Bodecker to die then finishes burying the dog’s bones before walking out of the forest onto the road – where he’s picked up by the hippy in that VW van.
The Devil All The Time is a febrile, violent sprawl, but it is also, occasionally, bleakly funny. This is mainly thanks to the narrator, who is partly there to mock the characters’ earnestness around religion, and how much it backfires on them. Maybe God too, has a sense of humour, if a cruel one.