“Some people were born just so they could be buried.”
The Devil All the Time (2020) is a story about how the lives of different people can intersect in surprising and perhaps providential ways. Set in the locations of Knockemstiff, Ohio, and Coal Creek, West Virginia, the story follows nine main characters, tracing the intersection of their life choices and the consequences of those choices for their family and loved ones. The film features a cast of stars including Bill Skarsgård, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Haley Bennett, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, and Sebastian Stan, as well as folk musician Pokey LaFarge.
At the beginning of the story, Marine Willard Russell comes home to Knockemstiff from the Pacific front of World War II, shaken by what he has seen. Willard’s mother has promised God that, in exchange for Willard’s safe arrival home, she will make sure he marries Helen Hatton, a sweet girl from church. However, Helen falls for and later marries a fiery local preacher named Roy Laferty, and Willard marries a waitress named Charlotte whom he met while passing through Meade, Ohio. Tragedy befalls both couples when Charlotte dies from cancer and Willard takes his own life shortly after.
Meanwhile, Roy murders his wife in a fit of religious fanaticism and is murdered himself shortly after. The orphans of both couples, Lenora and Arvin, grow up together as siblings, raised by Willard’s mother. The lives of both orphans are changed forever when Reverend Preston Teagardin, a silver-tongued and ill-intentioned preacher, arrives in Knockemstiff. Meanwhile a couple known as Carl and Sandy Henderson go on a serial-killing spree targeting hitchhikers, and Sheriff Lee Bodecker assesses his chances of reelection in the context of small town politics.
The Southern Gothic tone of the film, as well as its attention to regional details such as accents, unfiltered cigarettes, clothing, and other everyday items seems promising. Moreover, the film attempts a story that highlights both the violent tendencies and strong familial bonds at the heart of Appalachian culture.
However, The Devil All the Time is one of those movies that makes for a better trailer than a film. All the details that were interesting in the movie knit together well for an enticing trailer but do not make up for the lack of substance in the plot. The film’s narrative follows a wide array of characters whose connections to each other end up being loose and uncompelling apart from some cinematic shock value, and the cast of talented actors seems wasted. At other times, the film introduces plot points but buries the lead multiple times.
For instance, Sheriff Bodecker appears in several scenes sprinkled throughout the film. We know that he is running for reelection and that he interacts with the main characters several times, but his character does not seem important to the plot despite being portrayed as someone the viewers should care about. Furthermore, Robert Pattinson’s character, the conniving and hypocritical Reverend Teagardin, is introduced as the film’s main antagonist and a potential evil genius, but dies a few scenes later without having occupied much space in the narrative.
The Devil All the Time could have been a good film if it had had more plot structure. Instead, it is a series of interesting scenes strung together and seems to focus more on atmosphere than story. Its allure comes from horror mixed with historical setting and regional nostalgia. Beyond potentially appreciating these traits, it is not worth the viewer’s time.
The Devil All the Time
Robert Pattinson in a frilly preacher shirt9.0/10
- Director: Antonio Campos
- Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Haley Bennett, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, Sebastian Stan
- Producers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Randall Poster, Max Born
- Production Company: Nine Stories Productions, Bronx Moving Company,
- Based on: The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock