The Lord taketh more than giveth away in Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time. Comprising a cast so talented and fawned over, the seedy crime thriller should come with a warning so viewers don’t get too attached. Some Hollywood favorites meet undesirable fates or, worse, play humankind’s most deplorable. Gruesome murders, sickening exploitation, and suffocating misery characterize this foray into the dark underbelly of America’s heartland. Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name, the Netflix original is a blistering indictment of religion and its widespread damage across generations of God-fearing families.
There hasn’t been a drama like this in a while, dense in plot and backstory, with character collision aplenty. These unfortunate souls converge across different time periods (the late-1940s to mid-60s), destinies intertwining to unexpected yet grim futures. Fittingly, Pollock guides this interweaving tale with a foreboding voiceover. His narration work measures up to the likes of Morgan Freeman, Sam Elliott, and Jeff Bridges. Soothing in its passive neutrality, Pollock’s voice is the only thing worth trusting in this entire conflict. After all, God is certainly nowhere to be found among these parts.
Jumping from Meade to Knockemstiff, Ohio, trouble for the Russell family first begins in the South Pacific. The end of World War II finds Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) face-to-face with a comrade’s brutal crucifixion. The horrifying image becomes a permanent battle scar, doubling his fear of Satan. He tells his young son that the devil works all the time, so their prayer game must be stronger. Willard even builds his own crucifix in the backyard as reverence to the Almighty. Much to the shock of his mother (Kristin Griffith), the insolent boy who hated church grew up to become more devout than her.
Events take a wicked turn when Russell’s wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) falls ill with cancer. Willard’s rage and worry cause him to be vigilant with his prayers. He even backhands his son to reiterate the consequences of not appealing hard enough for God’s mercy. Willard is so steeped in his blind piety that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be happy.
Seven years prior, Willard met Charlotte for the first time at a diner in Meade. She worked as a waitress there alongside Sandy (Riley Keough), a woman whose vibrant innocence becomes tarnished upon meeting Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke). The older gentleman has a photography hobby that’s quickly revealed to be a serial killing fetish. He lures young men, mainly off-duty enlisted officers, into posing nude with eventual wife Sandy, only to kill them once the Polaroids are taken.
Besides a deathly fear of Carl, one of the most confusing dilemmas in Antonio and Paulo Campos’ script is why she would remain with him for so long. Sandy’s brother Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) is the town sheriff running for reelection — and with strong ties to the local mafia. Surely he can get her out of a bind, or perhaps the implication is she’s too far gone in moral character to ever redeem herself.
The other couple who becomes entangled in the decades-spanning strife is preacher Roy Laferty (Harry Melling) and Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska). They belong to the same parish as the Russells, and their respective children Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) and Arvin (Tom Holland) grow up to form a bond as tight as family.
Eventually, Robert Pattinson shows up as a Reverend who uses his position for predatory desire. Pattinson’s Midwestern accent is the best among the mostly non-American ensemble. Reverend Preston Teagardin’s alacrity dupes church attendants into believing his boundless energy derives from God. In fact, it’s a ruse to groom young victims who believe his special attention means God is watching closely. His disturbing agenda is obvious to those who step outside religion’s cult-like grasp. Sadly, Evangelism often gives these pedophiles free rein to exert their authority since any oversight is considered an affront to their spiritual wisdom.
Editor Sofía Subercaseauxdoes immaculate work tying together these separate storylines into one cohesive, all-encompassing narrative. Even the time jumps at the beginning — used to contextualize and foreshadow — provide enough relevant background detail for easy comprehension. This fuels anticipation for the dramatic consequences ahead. The Devil All the Time unfolds like a page-turning mystery, each segment akin to chapters in a novel divided by character. While there’s no riddle or twist to be unlocked, the long journey puts into perspective the ubiquitous, pervasive influence of religion in Middle America. Campos puts a necessary spotlight on belief systems that weaponize fear as a means of control. Eventually, those under its dominion will lash out in violent ways, either as a means of resistance or to affirm their divine superiority.