By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan
Directed by Antonio Campos
Written by Antonio Campos, Paul Campos, Donald Ray Pollock
Produced by Bronx Moving Co, Nine Stories Productions
Trigger warning: rape and pedophilia.
Where to start with THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME?
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is Southern Gothic to a T, packed with every shade of darkness that could litter the Southern landscape: charismatic preachers who bring their devotion to extreme places, desperate countrymen who make sacrifices they can’t take back, serial killers roaming the countryside, corrupt cops, and pedophilic pastors are paraded in front of the viewer one by one, exhibits of the depravity lurking underneath the mundanity of Southern life. Tom Holland essentially plays the straight man, the good ol’ boy who’s seen some shit and is doing his best to make his way in the world, but whose view of good is somewhat skewed by his traumatic upbringing. Still, he acts as an audience surrogate as he comes into contact one by one with the dark things lurking in his small town, and excises them like the cancers they are. And that’s really the movie.
Is it good? Yes and no.
For one, everyone here is on their A-game. Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgärd, and Robert Pattinson in particular are spectacular in their respective roles, ranging from (in Tom’s case) a passionate if reserved young man governed by the rules of Southern manhood to (in Pattinson’s case) a fundamentally loathsome shyster with an accent that makes your fucking skin crawl. It’s the best I’ve ever seen of either of them, and Bill is equally captivating as Tom’s increasingly desperate father, a good man corrupted by grief and faith into an extremist. Sebastian Stan, Jason Clark, Harry Melling, and Riley Keough also deliver memorable performances in their respective roles, but their inclusion is somewhat dampened by the fact that there are SO MANY FUCKING CHARACTERS to follow. I meant it when I said that THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME parades these characters in front of you one by one, flipping between B-stories with the promise that they’ll eventually tie together. And they do, but not in a way that was especially satisfying. I’m always down for some prime Southern Gothic goodness, and love that many of these characters (and the respective tropes of the genre that governs them) are even in the movie; but a lot of time is spent with characters who exist only to get mowed down by the protagonist as a repudiation of what they stand for and a bitter but firm affirmation of good over evil. I’m here for it, and all of the characters are treated respectfully; a couple of them (like Harry Melling and Riley Keough’s characters) are even shaded with tragedy despite their misdeeds. But it sure as hell makes the movie drag on a bit. The film clocks in at just over two hours, and much of it feels like a parting of the veil, a window into the darker slices of southern life. Will that be entertaining for everyone? Probably not.
But when it comes to that darkness, this film pulls absolutely no punches. In the first half hour, a charismatic preacher covers himself in spiders and murders a woman he accidentally got pregnant. A man who saw his comrade get burned to death and crucified in the war crucifies his son’s dog as a prayer to God. A serial killer finds his Harley Quinn and has her fuck other men before killing them and having her pose with their bodies. And that’s the tip of the fucking iceberg. There’s plenty here that will shock, disturb, and thrill; for genre junkies like myself, you’ll find a lot to love in THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, especially in it’s not so subtle critique of religion (organized and otherwise) and its overall embrace of and cynicism towards Southern culture. Parts of this film felt like coming home, and not in a good way.
As a last note, I want to address Robert Pattinson’s character and issue a slight trigger warning: he plays a pastor who preys on underage girls. Repeatedly. And as I said earlier, the film pulls no punches. It’s an unpleasant watch, particularly because you know this shit happens everywhere, even today. The inclusion of this character in this film has value objectively for that reason, as he represents a very real threat that an unfortunate number of people have been exposed to; I’m just issuing a warning because very few of the people I’ve known who have seen this movie loved seeing all of that, and I thought I should mention it, especially if the inclusion of such a character is likely to affect you in an adverse way.
I love the Southern Gothic genre, and THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME was, in many ways, a star-studded perfect encapsulation of the genre, with the ending leaving it open ended as to whether our hard-working protagonist will find the peace he seeks. I’m giving it a 7.
Next week, we return to Shudder with The Queen of Black Magic.