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Coal country noir – ‘The Devil All the Time’

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The relationships that exist between people – and the motivations that drive them – are often the best fodder for storytelling. The reasons we do the things we do and the people for whom we do them can be the purest distillation of our character.

Novelist Donald Ray Pollock has a knack for evoking the dark side of that equation; his books are packed with the brutality and evil that people do even while feeling utterly justified in doing them.

That sense of physical and emotional violence is omnipresent in “The Devil All the Time,” an adaptation of Pollock’s 2011 novel of the same name. Directed by Antonio Campos from a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Paulo, the film is set in midcentury West Virginia and Ohio and follows a sprawling collection of different characters through narratives whose connections – both overt and subtle – constantly ebb and flow toward one another.

It’s a story of sin, of the evil that even the pious are capable of if they can convince themselves of the righteousness of their acts. It’s a striking representation of the time and place, to be sure, while also featuring an incredible collection of talent in the cast. But that unrelenting representation of the dark side of human nature, the ongoing parade of terrible people doing terrible things for terrible reasons – it’s a lot. The bleakly entangled constancy of sex and violence and power and religion is frankly exhausting, though the excellent performances and quality filmmaking make it worth the undertaking nevertheless.

Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard, TV’s “Castle Rock”) has returned home to Coal Creek, West Virginia following his service in World War II. Haunted by what he saw, he nevertheless seeks to settle down and start a family, meeting his future wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett, “Swallow”) when she is his waitress in the town of Meade, Ohio – the closest bus stop to Coal Creek – upon his return to the States. The two marry, have a son and move to an isolated house in the small Ohio town of Knockemstiff.

At the same time, a photographer named Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke, “Pet Sematary”) meets his own future wife, a woman named Sandy (Riley Keough, “Zola”) who also works at the diner. It’s a relationship that will ultimately take a dark, murderous turn – the pair become thrill killers, picking up male hitchhikers and murdering (and photographing) them.

Meanwhile, the devoutly religious Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska, “Blackbird”) is captivated by the charismatic Roy Laferty (Harry Melling, “The Old Guard”), a hardcore evangelical who believes in the power of faith to heal – a belief that will ultimately lead to tragedy.

Tragedy and faith are shot all through these stories, in fact. When Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer, Willard’s anger and fear is such that he is driven to commit horrifying acts – acts that lead to their son Arvin being sent to live with Willard’s mother, who raises him alongside another child left behind by parents who inexplicably disappeared.

Some years later, a now-grown Arvin (Tom Holland, “Onward”) is deciding what direction his life will go. He is fiercely protective of his “sister” Lenora (Eliza Scanlen, “Little Women”), a quiet and awkward girl whose life is the church. But even the church proves to be a place of pain when the new preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson, “Tenet”) proves to be something of a hypocrite when it comes to following God’s path; that hypocrisy will prove devastating to young Lenora’s life.

The connections between these people vary – some are firm, others tenuous – but they are a constant. Each of them is connected to all the others, usually by tragedy, betrayal and pain. So many of them are blinded by their own wants and desires, seeing and understanding only that which they choose to see and understand. Those blinders unfailingly lead to tragedy (though some of those tragedies take longer to unfold than others).

Obviously, there’s far more to these stories, but the interconnected nature of the narrative is such that divulging much more threatens to unravel the intricate weaving that has been done. Pulling on one stray thread could ruin the entire viewing experience – just know that there is a LOT going on here, with an easy back-and-forth flow of chronology and focus that requires a fair amount of attention to be paid.

What Campos has done beautifully is capture the energy of midcentury America. The film LOOKS like its time and place, providing a shabbily beautiful juxtaposition to the darkness at the narrative’s heart. It’s a harsh and unrepentant look at the damage that can be done to people by the institutions on which they rely, whether it is the church or the government or even the family – all of it evoked through blood and brutality. Call it coal country noir or hillbilly gothic, an intense and unsettling condemnation of those who would do wrong under the guise of righteousness, no matter if done in good faith or bad.

(I should note that I availed myself of the excellent website www.doesthedogdie.com before watching this film and so was able to skip a particularly graphic and horrifying scene; I would strongly advise anyone who finds themselves asking that titular question – does the dog die? – frequently in their cultural consumption to do the same for this movie.)

And again, this is an exceptional cast, with everyone involved bringing their respective A-games. The “star” is ostensibly Holland, as his character serves to tie most of the threads together, though he doesn’t show up until well into the film. He’s fantastic, giving what may well be the best performance of his career thus far, a gradual slow-motion descent into a true understanding of the evils of the world. Pattinson is phenomenal, as is Scanlen. Clarke and Keough are a dynamite pairing, with a crackling energy that is far more overtly sinister than the rest. Skarsgard will haunt you. And on and on and on … everyone is great, including Donald Ray Pollock, who serves as the film’s narrator in a nicely meta touch.

“The Devil All the Time” isn’t an easy movie to watch. It is violent and angry and unabashed in pointing out the dangers posed by our institutional hypocrisies, offering up a portrait of human nature painted largely in the shadows. It is convoluted and bloodthirsty – and perhaps too much of each – but the talented people both in front of and behind the camera serve to elevate the proceedings greatly.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 21 September 2020 11:10

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