Light Gray Noir
Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time is monotonously grim
Netflix’s synopsis line for The Devil All the Time tells us the movie unfolds in a “backwoods town teeming with corruption and brutality,” and boy, ain’t that the godforsaken truth. This bloody, overlong affair is full of murder and suicide and sexual terror and even a brushstroke of necrophilia. It’s a real Southern gothic, with religious/fundamentalist hypocrisy cheek by jowl with horrific mayhem. The whole godawful thing starts with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), home from World War II, where he saw the flyblown near-corpse of an American soldier nailed to a cross.
World War II was where the country lost its innocence, if it ever had it; it found itself meeting acts of ghastly cruelty with two acts of epic cruelty. One could riff on what’s in this movie and say properly literary things about its apparent thesis that the war was proof of God’s absence. But it grinds on, unpleasantly and humorlessly, and leaves us feeling as though we were coated with a thick layer of slime. The Devil All the Time is about human monsters running rampant under the red and indifferent sky of rural Ohio, and they mouth the words of God while operating as if no one were watching them. Or maybe they’ve been driven mad by comparing their base human selves to the glory of the Lord. Who knows?
If this thing has a hero, it’s Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), son of Willard; Arvin seems to have a moral compass, which in this movie boils down to not being actively malevolent. Arvin’s stepsister runs afoul of the new town preacher Teagardin (Robert Pattinson); Arvin also finds himself up against a corrupt cop (Sebastian Stan) and a couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) who go around killing and raping people — yes, in that order — and then taking pictures of the carnage. The sheer thoroughness of the movie’s nihilism is almost funny. The story is set from the late ’40s to the mid-’60s, with WWII and Vietnam as the dark bookends, and we may nod at all the neat little literary touches — the film is based on an acclaimed 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who narrates the movie. But prose often redeems a story’s brutality, whereas in a film one is stuck looking at a freshly mutilated victim of the serial-killer couple, and there’s no mitigating poetry — just nastiness.
Overheated, garish southern-discomfort stories have a long and sometimes scintillant pedigree. But Antonio Campos, the director of The Devil All the Time, manages to deaden every emotion and atrocity. He just presents the ghoulish anecdotes neutrally, with no juice or steam. Or heart or point. The mood is grinding inevitability — everyone’s on the escalator down to Hell, and they can’t change what they are. That’s the motor of noir, of course, but this movie is noir blanched to light gray. There are no great mysteries or secrets to be unveiled here; there’s just Arvin plodding along the road of violence that his father set him on. Arvin is America personified, I guess, doomed to play out the same homicidal-suicidal nightmares/fantasies over and over.
The problem is that the characters are never defined other than their capacities for madness and viciousness. We get not one but two disgusting preachers with pinched faces and the eyes of predators. I’d call the movie misogynist based on the terrible depictions of women (either psychos or prey), if most of the men weren’t an order of magnitude worse. The movie presents no way of living that doesn’t demand sacrificing one’s soul to violence. It’s ultimately a callow lens through which to view the world, or even a fictional world. The performances are dedicated enough to keep us watching even though the performers never do anything especially enjoyable. The nihilistic scheme of the narrative won’t let them; they’re all pawns knocking other pawns off the board. A movie that’s the devil all the time is as limited as a movie that’s the Lord all the time.