By Andrew Harwood
“Excuse me preacher, you got time for a sinner?”
What is good? What is bad? A popular moral question that begs the simplest yet most intricate and cunning answers serves the purpose for this week’s film: Netflix’s “The Devil all the Time.”
Based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, “The Devil all the Time” tells the story of several figures in post-World War II southern Ohio as sinisters cross paths among the good-natured. With a heavy religious undertone and ethical questioning, this film begs viewers to examine just exactly what is good and what is bad.
Directed and co-adapted for the screen by Antonio Campos, along with his brother Paulo, “Devil” is probably one of the best-cast and well-acted films I have seen so far. With an ensemble including Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Haley Bennett, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Eliza Scanlen and Sebastian Stan, there is not a single bad performance in this film.
What makes this film truly unique is its way of storytelling. Told through a non-linear story, the film jumps from 1947 to 1957 to depict the life of the central character Arvin Russell, played by Holland. Anchored by a sometimes droning and annoying narration, the film depicts Russell growing up in the Appalachian area of Ohio and West Virginia, all the while haunted by his father’s misdeeds.
The overarching religious tone is mainly thanks to Pattinson’s preacher character as well as another young preacher, Roy, played by Harry Melling.
On top of these two rather intriguingly devilish characters is Russell’s father, Skarsgard, a devout Christian whose faith was questioned during his service in World War II. After his return home, misfortune and rough times throw Skarsgard back into his faith, creating more trouble for Russell.
Russell watches in discomfort as the people around him drop dead, leading him to question God and his faith as he struggles to understand just why certain people behave cynically. This moral question persists throughout the entirety of the film, mainly through Russell’s eyes, but also through the viewer.
One of the very first images we see in “Devil” is of an American soldier crucified in the South Pacific, leading us to question not just the film itself but exactly how someone can do such a thing to another person.
That is what is most striking about this film: the violence and carnage it throws at us. It’s blaringly in our faces, lurking on a freeway and then slowly built up into a jump-scare. As much hate as this can accumulate, the film succeeds in being able to play off and work with its violence.
Violence isn’t just thrown in for the hell of it, it’s meticulously crafted by characters in a wicked sense of action. Just in conjunction with the overarching religious tone of the film, we witness and experience these immoral sins and start to slowly feel for these characters, as strange as that sounds.
Is it strange though? After all, in our society we are groomed to feel for the dead, as well as sympathize for people in trouble. Where it becomes interesting, however, is when these people are sinister. How can we possibly feel for murderers or anarchists or sadists, given what they inflict upon other people?
This philosophy is something that is incredibly well-played-out in “Devil.” Throughout the entire film, we as a viewer struggle to accept that we do feel bad for these murderers and sadist characters. It takes a bullet to the stomach or a hit gone wrong for us to almost wake from this trance and truly take in what we have just witnessed.
“Devil” is as well-made of a film as it is well-acted. In conjunction with an organic story and quite stunning imagery, the film serves a greater purpose of begging the viewer to fully understand the inner workings of a sinister person’s mind, all the while playing a tightrope act with what is good and bad.
As Holland says in the film, “Excuse me preacher, you got time for a sinner?” We all do Tom, we all do.