It’s a good thing we have a gravel-voiced narrator guiding us through the byzantine, time-hopping and sometimes interconnecting storylines in the mid-20th century noir mood piece “The Devil All the Time,” because there are times when things get so complicated and so messy, we could use a little help.
At first, the jigsaw puzzle seems needlessly difficult to solve, but once all the pieces are in place and we see the big picture, we’re left with admiration for director/co-writer Antonio Campos’ ability to weave a memorably brooding film from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name. (In a neat touch, Pollock literally voices the film as the aforementioned narrator.)
Bill Skarsgard plays Willard Russell, a World War II veteran who a decade later is still haunted by the image of a comrade strung up on a crucifix and left to die a slow and excruciating death. Skarsgard is hauntingly good as Willard faces his demons and tries to be a good husband and father but is fighting a losing battle.
Meanwhile, Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough) travel country back roads, picking up male hitchhikers and inviting them to pose for provocative photos with Sandy. Carl takes graphic photos of Sandy with the latest victim, who indeed becomes a victim — because the Hendersons are serial killers.
As the story moves to the mid-1960s, Tom Holland, in James Dean mode and pulling it off quite well, becomes the centerpiece of the story as Arvin Russell, the now-grown son of his late father Willard. Tom is fiercely protective of his stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), a fellow orphan who gives her trust to the town’s slick new preacher, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who drives a Cadillac and has the starter jewelry kit of transitioning-to-Vegas Elvis. (Preston Teagardin is a predator; another fire-and-brimstone preacher in the story murders his wife. “The Devil All the Time” has a LOT to say about religious hypocrisy.)
Arvin keeps trying to walk the righteous path, but he runs into some very bad people along his journey — and violent clashes cannot be avoided.
And in a film brimming with excellent acting, Sebastian Stan is a standout as Lee Bodecker, a murderously corrupt sheriff with longstanding ties to Arvin and serial killer Sandy, among others. Bodecker is one of those villains so vile you’re rooting for him to get his comeuppance, but you’ll hate to see him go.
With Alabama filling in for postwar rural West Virginia and Southern Ohio, director Campos and cinematographer Lol Crawley do a superb job of creating an ominous atmosphere, as if despair and tragedy are lurking around every small-town street corner, down every stretch of country road. For all its indictments of religion, this film is not anti-faith; it’s a cautionary tragedy about putting your faith in the wrong men who cloak themselves in God when in fact the devil is inside them, all the damned time.