“The Devil All the Time” is a story of multiple generations impacted by violence in the heartland of America. It chronicles how faith and evil often intertwine through the years as men of the cloth commit heinous crimes and their allegedly loyal flock confuse issues of life and death. Shot on film—which was one of Campos’ smartest decisions—it has a dirty, tactile sense about it, and will be several shades too grim and grotesque for some viewers. This is dark, dark stuff—the story of various families impacted by murder and tragedy.
It is also a story of fathers and sons. Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) returns home to Knockemstiff, Ohio from World War II, carrying the heavy weight of PTSD. His particular trauma has been melded with faith in part because of the day he came upon a man in the Pacific theater of the war who had literally been crucified, his bloody body still barely alive on a cross. When Willard looks up at the cross in the woods outside his house, one senses he can still see horror in an image of faith.
Willard’s son is Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta), and the first section of the film takes place when Arvin is nine. Arvin’s mother Charlotte (Haley Bennett) gets sick and themes of the line between life and death and the rituals of faith work into the narrative even more distinctly. Willard teaches Arvin to respond to violence with violence, and even to believe that sacrifice may be the answer.
Clearly, that’s a lot of story right there for a whole movie, but it’s merely a fraction of the 140 minutes of “The Devil All the Time.” From those promising early scenes, Campos’ script (co-written with his brother Paolo) spirals out into multiple other stories of people connected to the Russell family, including a corrupt cop named Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) and his sister Sandy (Riley Keough), who is married to a serial killer named Carl (Jason Clarke). And then they jump forward to an older Arvin (Tom Holland), still in Knockemstiff and trying to protect his half-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), whose mother (Mia Wasikowska) was murdered by a preacher (Harry Melling). Got that? And then another corrupt preacher named Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) enters the narrative and Alvin has to decide if he can stop the cycles of violence.