Neither the casual observer nor the seasoned cartographer would likely pick up a map and sense any great tie between Coal Creek, West Virginia, and Knockemstiff, Ohio (you read that correctly). But as the narration that sets up Antonio Campos' new film, "The Devil All the Time," informs us, the two depressed towns and the road that lies between will provide the setting for momentous generational sin and moral bankruptcy in the two hours and 18 minutes to follow.
The film — based on Donald Ray Pollock's eponymous novel — delivers on the narrator's promise with nearly scene-to-scene regularity, following the thorny web of malfeasance woven by the nearly dozen-strong ensemble cast of characters. We watch helplessly as the shell-shocked, virulent psyche of World War II vet Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) — exacerbated by misguided religious fanaticism — erupts into fits of injurious outrage. Just as forlorn a bystander is Willard's son, Arvin, who sustains unimaginable emotional scarring from the desperate measures Willard takes in attempting to save his cancerous wife (Haley Bennett). But it's his reaction when he fails that proves most destructive.
Eight years later, a teenaged Arvin (Tom Holland) has inherited his father's pressure-cooker temperament, and the remainder of the film shows how this mean streak poisons the day-to-day conduct of everyone in his vicinity. What's more, it postulates that, no matter their occupation or religion or family tree, each person Arvin passes in the school halls, shares a cigarette with or eyes in church, try as hard as they might, is guilty of equal or greater depravity than he — as the movie's tagline reads, "Everyone ends up in the same damned place." The loathsome misdeeds of the new-to-town preacher Preston (Robert Pattinson), Knockemstiff's sheriff (Sebastian Stan), his promiscuous sister (Riley Keough) and her murderous husband (Jason Clarke) also get plenty of screen time, though the origins of their wickedness are less fleshed out.
Particularly on trial is the role of religion, or the lack thereof, in loosing the monster within a man. While characters outside the church seem to view godlessness as a freeing, catalyzing agent for their nihilistic proclivities, the praying, churchgoing characters — namely Skarsgård's and Pattinson's — treat their faith as currency, either to accrue power and fuel influence or to stave off misfortune and justify their worst tendencies. As the film seems to communicate, those who populate the church pews have delusionally resigned themselves to a disappointing life spent waiting on an unresponsive higher power, while those who aspire to the pulpit are Machiavellian lowlifes with only themselves in mind. As such, "The Devil All the Time" makes for an often one-sided amorality play, uninterested in any notion that faith — Christian or otherwise — might be a source of inspiration, good will and hope for some.
That's not to say it's a poorly-crafted film, though. On the contrary, this is an often affecting and compelling melodrama with Southern Gothic sensibilities, though it doesn't achieve the Steinbeckian grandeur to which it clearly aspires. Frequently using wide-angle lenses and chiaroscuro lighting to highlight his characters' solipsism, Campos imbues every scene with an inevitable tension and dread, to the point that few viewers will manage to loosen their lower-neck muscles until the credits finally grant mercy. Whether playing someone deranged, cunning, stifled or just plain bad, each performer fills his or her shoes marvelously, particularly those at the top of the bill: Holland carries the torch from Skarsgård's groundwork-laying capriciousness, acting as the story's seldom-dormant time-bomb, though his sensitivities and weaknesses can be seen constantly stewing beneath his often rigid expression; and Pattinson's soft-spoken yet acidic charisma fuels an irrepressible demagoguery.
Yet while the main narrative involving Willard, Arvin, Preston and all those whose lifestyles they poison remains intriguing throughout, the film's cluster of side plots — particularly involving Stan, Keough and Clark — serve as little more than distractions with ultimately uninteresting ties to the A-story. Seldom-helpful narration nudges the viewer along when they're likely to question the necessity of a certain scene, and when the unifying narrative through line finally materializes, it's in the form of a sluggish, 15-minute finale that does little more than fizzle unsatisfactorily. The movie's not my definition of long, or even slow for that matter, but certainly a few plot points — perhaps even characters — could have been sacrificed from Pollock's story to form a tighter, more screen-friendly narrative.
"The Devil All the Time" is about as cynical a movie as they come — not quite blindly so, but certainly more stubborn in its misanthropy than it should be. Still, its storytelling works far more often than it doesn't, and it ought to effectively tranquilize anyone who can't help but find the summer-to-fall shift outside their window just a little too pleasant for their liking.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.