There are bleak movies – Robert Mitchum as a minister turned serial killer in 1955’s ultra disturbing The Night of The Hunter springs to mind – and then there is The Devil All The Time; two and a half hours of unrelenting misery and hopelessness whose only joy lies in the fact that your own life is hopefully nowhere near as awful as any of the extremely unlucky characters which inhabit this dismal, unforgiving part of mid-century America.
Based on former trucker Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 debut novel – Pollock also provides an appropriately gravelly voiceover throughout – readers of the bestseller will already know what dark horrors await, but everyone else will catch up pretty quickly, as the terrors come thick and fast from the very start of this brutally gothic treatise on the dark directions religion can lead its followers in.
Set in and around a real place called Knockemstiff – a case of nominative determinism if ever we heard it – in the deeply rural Appalachian setting of Ohio, this story of interlocking tragic tales spans the twin nightmares of WWII to Vietnam and begins with Bill Skarsgard’s man of few words, Willard Russell. A war veteran who has seen unseeable things on the battlefield, upon returning to his woodsy home Willard shacks up with a nice waitress he meets in a cafe, thinking the worst part of his young life is behind him. He couldn’t be further from the truth. They are bullied by their neighbours and the wife falls ill, setting off a series of depressing events.
As the story jumps forward a decade or so, Willard’s son Arvin becomes the focus of the film, played by Spider-Man: Far From Home‘s Tom Holland, looking every inch the wide-eyed 1950s teenager. Though he’s every right to be a little messed up, he’s a sweet kid, but after sussing out his town’s psychopathic new preacher – played with chilling intensity by Robert Pattinson – he manages to fall in with an even more sinister couple, played by an unrelentingly wicked Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, the Fred and Rose West of the Midwest.
Unblinkered faith is cast as the root of all evil in The Devil All The Time, but the most chilling scenes aren’t necessarily the most violent. In an eerie chapel, old school country musician Pokey LaFarge makes his movie debut alongside Harry Melling (Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley), the pair conjuring up the hellfire hillbilly music of the Louvin Brothers while winning over Mia Wasikowska’s helpless, lonely Helen in the process.
“I have tried many times to write a nice story,” said The Devil All The Time’s author Pollock. “But I can’t do it. I am just more comfortable writing about the dark stuff.” Such hardship evidently appealed to 37-year-old director and screenplay adaptor Antonio Campos, whose previous work includes 2016’s Christine – the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter who committed suicide live on air. Campos has also long been mooted to direct a prequel to classic 1970s horror The Omen. While The Devil All The Time is far from pleasant, it’s so gripping that it’s very hard to look away.
- Director: Antonio Campos
- Starring: Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Haley Bennett
- Release date: September 16 (Netflix)