The Southern Gothic is as American as the second amendment. Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” the tale of a cynical preacher searching for redemption in his decrepit hometown, is obviously the most famous literary example of the genre; it set the tone for many to come, including films like Deliverance to television like True Detective. “Wise Blood” is delightfully grotesque, rotten to the core and crawling with maggots, but it’s also a profound statement on sin and redemption.
It is to the likes of “Wise Blood” that The Devil All The Time clearly aspires; the film explicitly evokes O’Connor’s text a number of times, not least in the characterisation of Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a man remarkably similar to O’Connor’s protagonist, Hazel Motes – no doubt a hangover from Donald Ray Pollock’s book of the same name (the author also narrates the film from his own prose), from which the film is adapted. It’s similarly grim, too; what it lacks is profundity.
Tragedy besets Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) throughout the film, which is set across two tumultuous decades immediately after World War II, in and around the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. While Holland doesn’t always take centre stage, it’s his character that we follow from birth until he graduates high school. He grows into a man with a well-tuned moral compass and zero tolerance for bullies; he owes the latter to Willard, his dad, who Arvin once watched beat two impudent men near to death. Arvin is particularly protective over his sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who he adores immeasurably.
Three vile characters interact with Arvin at some point of the film’s chronology as part of their own subplots: The exploitative Reverand Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), the corrupt Sherriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) and a True Romance-esque couple (played by Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) with a penchant for bloody murder. And like all the Bickle clones before him it becomes the quest of little Arvin, beit God given or otherwise, to wash the filth from the streets or, in this case, from the backwoods. The film isn’t too convoluted but it is formally tangential, so be prepared for a little head scratching.
You’ll tick off the biggest tropes of Southern Gothic very quickly, because despite admirable spirit, that’s all The Devil All The Time ever really is: a patchwork of genre tropes. There is seldom a scene without a cross, for example, beit around a character’s neck or mounted from a rusty nail. There are terrible fathers, too, not the least of whom is the drunken, dog murdering Willard, whose wartime experience with a gruesome crucifixion sets the film’s wearily bleak tone from the start. Symbolism can make for nice seasoning, but Campos clearly forgot to tighten the salt-shaker lid.
The film does try to make some profound points: The murderous couple, for example – taking pictures of their victims, labelled “models,” in the moment of their deaths – kill to feel closer to God. Based on the age old proverb that the eyes are the window to the soul, this is an interesting conceit in itself, but writer-director Antonio Campos and co-writer Paulo Campos neglect to take it any further; it’s nothing more than window dressing to the grotesque.
The Campos’ frequently skip over details in this manner; in one scene, a dog is ritualistically crucified as an offering to God but again, the gross-out factor is centred, as opposed to why such an act might have been performed. This superficiality carries throughout the film: The Devil All The Time is peppered with interesting ideas, but they’re poorly elucidated and rarely expanded on.
Robert Pattinson plays the nefarious Teagardin with a fantastic southern drawl and remarkable chutzpah. His performance is undoubtedly the best of the lot, and deserving of so much more than given: In abstract, Teagardin is just another creepy gothic priest, a composite of better written characters to come before him. In other words, he’s the afterbirth of Eli Sunday: They should’ve put him in a glass jar on the mantelpiece.
In many ways Teagardin is a great analogy for The Devil All The Time. The spectacle itself isn’t exactly unenjoyable; it’s melodramatic and quite engaging. But it’s also frustratingly derivative, and this quickly becomes grating. A genre piece is seldom good if it’s trying so aggressively to evoke past texts: It tries hard to be “Wise Blood,” but The Devil All The Time is more of an annoying dud.
The Devil All the Time premieres globally on Netflix September 16.