Given how starkly bleak the previous films of Antonio Campos have been, especially 2016’s truly sublime Christine, one of the most disarming things about The Devil All The Time, his adaptation of a grim and grisly American Gothic novel, is just how much damn fun it is. From the opening folksy voiceover to the often jaunty score to a set of fabulously arch performances from an all-star ensemble, it retains some of Campos’s trademark darkness, but puts it to a more lurid, pulpy use than ever before.
As troubled young man Arvin Russell, Tom Holland is the ostensible lead of this sprawling story, but it’s a while before we meet him. The Devil All The Time covers a period of two decades across the rural towns of West Virginia and Ohio, as America comes to terms with the trauma of World War 2 before gearing up to send a new generation of young men off to die in Vietnam. We’re first introduced to the Russell clan through Arvin’s father Willard (Bill Skarsgard), a veteran of the Pacific Theatre, tortured by memories of a battlefield crucifixion, but determined to re-find his faith and start a family.
The misery comes thick and fast throughout, with dog murder, suicide, cancer, and throat stabbings in just the first half an hour. There’s a vast ensemble cast in The Devil All The Time, and very few of them are up to any good, and those who are fall victim to hypocrites, sadists, and just plain old bad luck. Their sheer volume mean that some of the tragedies aren’t quite as affecting as they should be, but Campos realises the absurdity he’s working with and relishes it, his script (written alongside his brother Paulo) laced with dark humour and a perverted but cathartic sense of justice.
A lot of wit and warmth is provided by the film’s omniscient narrator, voiced by the author of the original novel, Donald Ray Pollock. His soft yet gravelly tone sets the stage for a series of brilliant performances, all bringing their own unique balance of malevolence and silliness. Skarsgard and Holland make for charismatic, muscular leads, supported by deft turns from Riley Keough and Jason Clarke as a pair of murderous proto-swingers, Sebastian Stan as a corrupt sheriff, and plenty more. It’s an impressive feat on Campos’s part that only one actor really feels lost in the shuffle with all these moving parts, though it’s unfortunate that that actor had to be Mia Wasikowska, who feels wasted.
It’s the two preachers who steal the show, though. In the ‘40s segments, the town church is visited by an old-school minister in the snake-handling mould, who caps off his sermons by pouring a jar of spiders on his face. He’s played by Harry Melling, who is revelatory, overflowing with unhinged chaos and self-delusion, the undisputed highlight of the film, at least until Robert Pattinson shows up. As the perverted priest who becomes rapily entangled with Arvin’s school-age step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), Pattinson steps out at about the halfway mark and proceeds to absolutely dominate the film.
Armed with an unforgettable Tennessee accent, his vampiric mannerisms and creepy seductions are both disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny, with one particular line-reading ranking as perhaps the most hilarious of the year. It’s a paper-thin tonal tightrope that he walks, and even if there are occasional stumbles, the overall effect is so riotously entertaining that they hardly matter. Campos is unafraid of making his characters look foolish or ugly (almost every man in the film is a paunchy mess), making them far more memorable than a more ‘serious’ take on the material might have.
Campos is mostly content to let his cast drive the film, and though the locations and set designs are engrossing and evocative, The Devil All The Time is less atmospheric than his smaller, more intimate work. Below the surface, there are some neat little explorations of how America brings its wars home, but this is not a film that is enormously concerned with the wider socio-political picture. It’s a pulp thriller brought to life with tongue firmly in cheek (you don’t cast Douglas Hodge as a backwoods pimp if you’re taking yourself too seriously); a pungent and blood-soaked joy.