There’s a grim sense of dread that dictates most of the storytelling in “The Devil All the Time,” the film adaptation of the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock. If you’re familiar with the material, you already know that this isn’t a feel-good diversion to enjoy on family movie night. Director Antonio Campos thankfully doesn’t shy away from the most bleak and brutal aspects of the narrative, which makes for a brooding thesis about the role of religion and the cycle of violence that routinely corrupts our basic humanity.
Set in post-World War II West Virginia and Ohio, the film tells the story about a disturbed veteran (Bill Skarsgård), his son (Michael Banks Repeta then later, Tom Holland), an orphaned girl (Eliza Scanlen), a false preacher (Robert Pattinson), and a couple of serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough). The complex themes make writing a thorough synopsis nearly impossible, but the end result is a riveting, emotional blow that’s sometimes difficult to watch. Campos uses a non-linear structure that complements his storytelling, and the characters are tied together by a narrator (who happens to be author Pollock). There’s a lot of literary ground covered in this story, and the film feels like a novel adaptation — but in a good way. Despite cramming in so many details, the rapidly-paced film doesn’t feel too rushed, and the characters are fully realized and represented.
Not only is the film well-directed, the cast is packed with actors who routinely make interesting, thoughtful choices when it comes to their careers. Everyone both behind and in front of the screen make an impact, even if all too briefly (see Mia Wasikowska).
The film is highly critical of organized religion, and has no problem pointing out the hypocrisy of the Christian church when it comes to the teachings of the Bible. There are many godlike men (or at least those claiming to be) portrayed here, but they are consumed more by the devil than devout righteousness. Many commit despicable acts in the name of their religion, simply shrugging off their personal savagery because they believe their god told them to do it. It also asserts how blind faith can bring out the worst in human nature, setting a course for a lifetime of potential emotional and physical abuse while leaving behind a trail of destroyed lives in the process.
The danger of using organized religion as a weapon is just one of the story’s sophisticated themes, as it presents some very insightful commentary about despair, sacrifice, and the psychology of irrational devotion.
The film is at its best when it’s borderline aggressive with the viewer, refusing to shy away from the bleak emotional trauma of what happens when you count on a god to answer your prayers. Everything about “The Devil All the Time” is dark and ominous, making it one of the most memorable films of the year.