In Knockemstiff, Ohio and its neighbouring backwoods, sinister characters – an unholy preacher, twisted couple, and crooked sheriff – converge around young Arvin Russell as he fights the evil forces that threaten him and his family.
An orphan boy, two romantically involved serial killers, a corrupt sheriff, several guileless young women, one preacher who believes too much in God and another who believes too little: The Devil All The Time could easily turn into a sticky, melting mess. Yet somehow, despite being 138 minutes long, director Antonio Campos – aided by a top notch cast – avoids that. Just!
As a story it’s like the tangled ends of wool at the bottom of a sewing basket; with many (white) people connected, almost no way out, and seemingly with no effects outside the area where it all takes place. Tragedy after tragedy unfolds, all interlinked, as characters cross paths or stray too far into the wrong person’s orbit.
We’re helped by Donald Ray Pollock’s narration which is extensive and explanatory (Pollock wrote the novel on which the film is based); in most circumstances I’d say over-explanatory though here I welcomed it.
Campos’s film would actually make a great three-part mini series. It would feel like less of an endurance test and there are certainly enough shocks throughout to both horrify and hold its audience: death-by-screwdriver, cancer, crucifixion, sacrifice, suicide, and – steel yourselves, arachnophobes – Rev Laferty (Harry Melling) tipping a jar of spiders over his face during a sermon.
The overwrought atmosphere is unearthly and immersive, as poor Arvin absorbs shock after shock, buffeted by trauma, bending like a sapling in the wind.
“He was the only kid on the school bus who wasn’t somebody’s relation” drawls Pollock about Arvin, just before we see the nine year old come home to his parents with yet another black eye. It’s 1957 and his war-damaged dad Willard (an excellent Bill Skarsgard) takes him into the woods to deliver a pep talk about fighting back, and to pray at their “prayer log” that sits beneath a homemade wooden cross.
Two poachers mock them, threatening to go to their home and assault Willard’s wife Charlotte, so later that day Willard takes Arvin into town where Willard beats up the men involved. It’s a lesson to Arvin that round there, the language of real justice is violence – go in early but hard, part warning and part payback.
The film covers two decades, beginning in the mid-1940s with Willard’s return from WW2, haunted by his memories of a crucified Allied soldier, covered in blood and flies, and still alive.
He first meets Charlotte in a cafe travelling through the town en route to his mother after being demobbed. He’s so taken with her he travels back to find her. In the same cafe, Carl (Jason Clarke) meets Sandy (Riley Keough), sister of corrupt local Sheriff Bodecker (Sebastian Stan).
Carl and Sandy embark on what’s not so much a killing spree than a long-term career. Picking up young male hitchhikers, Carl encourages them to have sex with his pretty wife, explaining he wants only a few photos of them together, before he tortures and kills them.
(Years later Sandy seems to develop something of a conscience, even calling the police anonymously to tell them where a body is, but Carl is always keen to keep going. By the end of the film, well into the permissive ’60s, you wonder how much longer such a scheme could carry on.)
Willard and Charlotte are poor but hard-working, settling into their rented house with baby Arvin and the family dog, until a few years later when twin tragedies send the now-orphaned Arvin to live with Willard’s mother and uncle.
Also living there is Leonora, whose parents disappeared in mysterious circumstances when she was a baby (two more tragedies!) As his pious step-sister grows up, Arvin (now played by Tom Holland) continues to protect her, until she attracts the eye of the newly arrived Rev Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who tells her she needs to show herself naked to the Lord. In his presence of course. (As the film runs its course you start to recognise when the roots of yet another tragedy are sprouting.)
Arvin’s resilience is both extraordinary and believable, and Holland’s open face and wiry frame are perfectly suited. It feels like the awful things that happen to him go through him or are absorbed by him. His dad’s lessons mean he never seems like a victim because he always fights back, delivering the only justice that’s likely to be available.
Actors playing sleazy priests are often labelled charismatic though here it’s Holland who is the mesmerising presence. Pattinson, as Teagardin, expertly slithers around his impressionable young female parishioners, but doesn’t try to make him charismatic and I think that’s the point. Teagardin doesn’t need too be, once he can claim to have approval from both his predecessor and the Lord to pave the way for him.
Campos creates a very definite sense of place, of oddballs and innocents infected by their environment. The area where everything happens, the big woods and small towns, comes across as a landlocked Bermuda Triangle. Strange things are afoot, people disappear, and no one knows why.
The film itself – bookended by two wars, World War Two and Vietnam – fills that space in between with religion.
Teagardin, Carl and Sandy may twist the Bible for their own ends but most characters have absolute, if misguided, faith. Willard is convinced a sacrifice will make God save Charlotte when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, and preacher Roy Laferty sincerely believes that with prayer he can raise the dead.
Still, while for much of the film it seems everyone is praying to a God who doesn’t listen, doesn’t care, doesn’t exist or they don’t believe in anyway, by the end it’s as if divine retribution has been exacted – and finally God, and Knockemstiff, can be left behind.
The Devil All The Time is streaming now on Netflix
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