“Years ago, Willard had fitted together a weathered cross above a fallen tree in a small clearing behind his house. He came every morning and evening to talk to God. It seemed to his son that his father fought the Devil… all the time.”
So begins the dark, twisted story of Netflix’s original movie, The Devil All the Time. Directed by Antonio Campos, the film follows multiple characters across different timelines, frequently switching between the small, rural towns of Knockemstiff, Ohio and Coal Creek, West Virginia. Throughout the film, the audience can sense an eerie undertone that something is not quite right, although the actual problem itself is hard to define from just the plot. Full of both obvious and subtle religious connotations, The Devil All the Time makes viewers question what it really means to be a sinner.
The film’s characters are portrayed by an all-star cast, with big names such as Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, and much more. Together, they weave together a complex story that intertwines even the most distant of characters. The poor, small-town backdrops of Knockemstiff and Coal Creek make it easy for strangers to stand out, but even a newcomer can create waves in such confined regions. With a blend between established townies, migrants, and people who are perpetually on the road, the film keeps you guessing until the very end about how the characters will all connect to each other.
Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) is a recently returned World War II veteran. He has seen disturbing, violent acts during his time in the war, and he can’t seem to shake them from his memory, despite safely returning to his hometown and eventually settling down with a family. The war turned him away from God, but when his wife becomes sick, he returns to prayer with a fervent enthusiasm that leads to his moral demise.
Arvin Eugene Russell (Tom Holland), the son of Willard, grows up to be a bright young man, but his troubled past with his father and his involvement with God trails behind him. Arvin is fiercely devoted to his family, particularly to his sister, but his devotion leads him down the wrong path at times. The audience quickly learns that he is no saint, despite his best efforts to move on from his childhood trauma. Arvin represents a figure who tries his best to be good and do the right thing, but his morals mingle with violence and sin in his quest for justice.
Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) is the new Reverend in town in Coal Creek. With his sly, thin-lipped smile, he appears to be an inviting and charismatic preacher at first, but underneath his façade he hides dark, disturbing intentions. His sins will ultimately cost him, at the hands of Arvin, who is determined to bring justice to the family members that the Reverend has hurt.
Lenora Laferty is Arvin’s adopted sister. Shy but sweet, she is often bullied for her quiet demeanor. Devoted to prayer and God, she echoes the disconcerting behaviors of a disturbed Willard Russell, but she embodies her morals as a sweet, innocent person. She becomes entangled in a dangerous game with Reverend Teagardin, who will make her his next victim; her prayers may not be enough to save her.
Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough) are a married couple on the road, but for all of the wrong reasons. Carl has a perverted obsession with kidnapping and murdering hitchhikers, and taking pictures of the whole ordeal. Sandy plays along with his little game, but yearns for a different life, one where she isn’t subjected to Carl’s disgusting fantasies and can work toward becoming a better person. The couple mixes and mingles with various other key characters throughout the film, but during the final minutes of the film, they end up messing with the wrong hitchhiker (you might be able to guess who).
These are just a few of the key characters in the film, but they all perhaps play the biggest roles in moving the plot forward. Arvin is at the center of it all, from beginning to end, as he tries to work his way through the sinners that plague his life. What makes the cast of characters so intriguing is the shift between their good and evil sides. Some people, like Lenora, are simple and innocent; they just get caught up in the evil acts of others. Others, like Reverend Teagardin and Carl, are purely evil; they don’t appear to have one good bone in their body, and enjoy inflicting harm upon others. In between these two sides lie the most complex of characters, like Arvin and Sandy. They want to be good people and they try to fulfill their morals, but ultimately evil grabs a hold of them too. The contrast between good acts and evil intentions leads to a remarkable moral conflict, which in turn captivates viewers throughout the development of the plot.
Religion, God, and prayer are the most essential elements of the film itself. Director Campos does a tremendous job of crafting together both the positive and negative aspects of religion, and how following God can still lead a man down the path of destruction. The way Campos presents each character, and their relationship with prayer, leads to a puzzling maze of figuring out whether each character is morally sound or not. Ultimately, this decision is up to each individual viewer. Some may consider Arvin’s actions throughout the film morally reprehensible, others might consider it necessary for the greater good. One of my personally favorite components of the film was how Campos demonstrates that the people closest to God can still be the most evil; Reverend Teagardin is a preacher and a man of God, but arguably the most despicable character in the film. His character proves that a connection to God or religious status doesn’t mean anything, especially in the wake of sinful decisions and actions.
While The Devil All the Time presents deep, thoughtful content and a compelling narrative surrounding the double-edged sword of religion, it is certainly a slow burn that might be considered boring to some viewers. With a runtime of 138 minutes, the film takes its time building up the characters and their backstories, but the finale of the film feels a bit insufficient compared to the build up that the movie works so hard to create. An incredible performance by Tom Holland, who moves away from his bubbly Spiderman character and into much darker material, is slightly undermined by Robert Pattinson’s terrible West Virginian accent work (seriously, his accent is all over the place). With its Tarantino-esque puzzle piece plot and excellent cast of characters, The Devil All the Time is definitely worth a watch, but maybe only once. Just be warned: you might not want to go to church ever again.