“Excuse me, Preacher. You got time for a sinner?”: How Evil Follows Religion in ‘The Devil All the Time’
Based on the 2011 novel of the same name, ‘The Devil All the Time’ takes author Donald Ray Pollock’s narrative and expands upon the impact of war and violence on small, religious communities to create a viscerally disturbing photograph of mid-twentieth century America.
It follows a number of characters over the span of two decades, including Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a haunted veteran, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), a manipulative and lascivious preacher, Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), a couple with a penchant for picking up male hitch-hikers, Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), a crooked sheriff, and Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), a young man whose sense of justice is tainted by violence. With a dense narrative connecting these characters, ‘The Devil All the Time’ examines how their lives intertwine through isolated acts of brutality and tragedy.
“Years ago, Willard had fitted together a weathered cross above a fallen tree in a small clearing behind his house. He came every morning and evening to talk to God. It seemed to his son that his father fought the Devil all the time.”
One of the first things of note is the cast. The film presents a star-studded line-up of pretty faces from a variety of recognisable films and franchises. Who would’ve thought we’d see Spiderman, Batman, the Winter Soldier, Dudley Dursley, and Pennywise the Clown come together on the same screen? Only in 2020.
Nevertheless, the cast is nothing short of impressive, and their performance even more so. Capturing the disillusionment and unease that permeated the American South from the 1940s to the 1960s, each character brings to the table a new perspective on how brutality and selfishness impacts humanity.
Whilst Holland is arguably the show-stealer, the whole cast can be credited with thought-provoking and engaging performances- even with the accents. Considering that over half of the cast aren’t even American, the heavy Southern drawl put on by the actors was spot-on. Although you will have to prepare yourself for Robert Pattinson screaming “DELUSIONS” – it’s quite something!
“Ain’t no man ever been evil enough, not even that Hitler fella, come up with the ways Satan’s going to make them sinners pay come the Judgment Day!”
The interconnecting themes of religion and violence perpetuate every aspect of ‘The Devil All the Time’. Set along the Bible Belt of the United States, the film spans the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and makes references to both the Second World War and Vietnam.
By being exposed to extreme acts of violence, many characters find themselves confronted with a conflict of faith. Skarsgård’s character witnesses the crucifixion of a fellow soldier whilst at war, leading every image of the cross afterwards to become tainted by the harrowing image of bodily sacrifice. This perception of religion follows him home and defines the rest of the film; with faith and practice now intertwined with acts of brutality, every further reference to religion carries a wicked undertone.
Morality and decision-making are also integral to the plot of the film, with characters introduced in the 1940s performing irredeemable acts which influence the lives of other characters decades later. Morality is offset by delusion and manipulation, and actions are executed with either selfish or misguided intentions.
Holland’s performance as Arvin captures what it’s like to grow up with the intention to do good, but without the right means to do so. Having lost his faith in God at a young age, Holland’s character desperately clings to his father’s lesson to fight violence with violence. Consequently, his actions become morally grey due to the conflict between his intentions and methods. This leaves the viewer with the question: does the end justify the means?
Conversely, Pattinson’s character demonstrates the evil found in selfish actions. By canvasing himself to the local community as a holy and self-righteous man, the reverend gives himself a better opportunity to be able to manipulate young girls into sexual acts. His sexual prowess is the driving force for him to appear ‘good’, not his devotion to God. As such, the reverend becomes another character whose association with cruelty under the guise of religious salvation propels the continuous chain of cruelty, tragedy, and violence in the story.
“It is our delusions that lead us to sin.”
‘The Devil All the Time’ is neither short nor easy to watch, and quite honestly it probably bit off more than it could chew as it tried to incorporate as many details from the original story as possible. But this ultimately made a good film. With the story-telling set at a consistently fast pace, as well as enough shocking scenes and plot twists to keep viewers on their toes, there wasn’t any opportunity to be bored or distracted.
Whilst ‘The Devil All the Time’ likely won’t make the cut for a casual night in, it’s a good watch for those seeking a harrowing thriller that will leave them trying to dissect the plot days later. The film successfully delivers a commentary on the spectrum of morality and taught behaviours, in particular how those who parade themselves as “good God-fearing folk” are still very capable of doing evil things.