As town names go, Knockemstiff is something of a knockout. It’s evocative, to be sure: a pulpy heartland-gothic handle as evocative as the wizened and instantly recognizable face of an aged character actor. It’s a place that immediately sounds like it has a preacher you can’t trust, a sheriff with ulterior ambitions, and a steady stream of low-lying but grotesquely violent crooks passing through. It’s also, it turns out, a real place in Ohio — and the hometown of author Donald Ray Pollock, whose 2011 novel The Devil All the Time the filmmaker Antonio Campos has adapted into a movie about a young man, Arvin (Tom Holland), and his step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), two souls caught in the muck of fate. (The film is currently streaming on Netflix.)
It’s is a mid-century, multi-generational, very American crime story, in which the capacities for violence and deceit seem as natural to the state of man as any modicum of goodness, if not moreso. Knockemstiff isn’t the only setting here: Devil drifts between that quiet locus of damnation and the similarly bleak Coal River, West Virginia, with a few stops in between. If only the movie were up to the task of making sense of it all.
There’s an inkling of potential at the start, which opens not with Arvin or Lenora, but the generation above them: specifically, their wayward parents. Arvin, we learn, is taught from an early age to worship God. But his father, Willard (Bill Skarsgård), is a psychologically wounded veteran of the second world war, and when a grim end befalls his wife, he makes a choice that sends young Arvin’s life spinning. Lenora has a troubled backstory as well, involving a different dangerously pious father (Harry Melling) and another, far more unfortunate death. (Lenora’s mother s played by Mia Wasikowska, underused here.)
Eventually the duo wind up in the home of Willard’s grandmother and uncle, with one of them coming under the suspicious thrall of a new preacher, Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). And from there, fates will twine and preordained destinies will write themselves into the wet cement of the premise in ways that, for all the narrative complexity dished out here, feel fairly par for the course. I’ve yet to even mention the storylines relevant to the film’s expanded cast (Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough) or the grocery list of dark subjects at the its center: necrophilia, suicide, cancer — you name it, we got it.
The Devil All the Time is somehow far better at setting the stage for its story than it is at airing out all the interesting nooks and grabbing hold of its clear potential, perhaps because there’s so much to grab. It’s a gothic tale, but Campos’ idea of what that means is too literal, as if he’d read the opening line of the novel — “On a dismal morning near the end of a wet October ….” — and decided to manifest this, and only this, into a movie. His film is overly steeped in a well-trod, grim sense of heartland mythology — not inappropriately, given the film’s subject and setting. Muscular, masculine, post-war crime narratives like this are, after all, an essential ingredient of American folklore, material that often has the makings of well-made entertainment. This is a fact which Devil, with its wide, textured, 35mm images, is only too aware of. By the end of the movie, so are we.
From the opening scene, much of the most interesting material gets relegated to an ever-present, omniscient voiceover narrator — voiced by Pollock himself, who unfurls the story in a way that the film, for all its production value, apparently can’t. He relays the finer aspects of this story with a novelistic eye for detail and explanation. He tells us of the characters’ pasts and futures, draws the connections between them, weds their inner lives to the grand but auspiciously humble arc of the story.
But the narrator also has a habit of showing up what’s onscreen, and you get the sense that Campos doesn’t seem to trust what it is his images can give us on their own. After the camera lands on a woman’s face, Pollock intones: “The girl’s family had burned up in a house fire, leaving the poor thing all alone.” Well, shit. There’s also a character who, facing death, gazes skyward toward an absent God, at which point we hear that he “looked up at the clouds drifting by and wondered if that’s what death would be like, just floating away in the air.” It’s not that the sentiment is out of pocket; it’s exactly this sense of piety and the doubts it harbors, all of which have already firmly been established, that make the narration redundant.The story doesn’t quite feel up the task of telling itself.
The cast — a compatible mix of character actors, dependable pros it’s always nice to see, charming weirdos (Wasikowska and Keogh, for example), and box office stars appealingly eager to prove their chops (Pattinson, Holland) — try their best to dredge feeling and meaning out of the dull material. Only Pattinson — eely, eerie, intriguing — manages to add a spark of genuine curiosity here, raising his voice a pitch and announcing his character’s intrinsic lack of integrity with deft understatement.
Still, none of it really sails. The Devil All the Time has the pretensions of a mythopoetic story that’s chipping away at a community’s dark underbelly. But here the misery is as belly-up and eager to be noticed as a house cat or a dead fish. It seems that for all their talk of resurrection and forgiveness, for all their glimmers of goodness and selflessness amid pronounced local evil, God is intent on failing these people — almost as intent, in the end, as the movie itself.