Novelist Donald Ray Pollock narrates the film of his “hillbilly Gothic” saga, “The Devil All the Time,” from start to finish — and all points in between.
His is an authentic Appalachian voice, and when I pick up the book, I expect to hear it on every page, with every omnisciently-narrated line.
But narration on the printed page and voice-over narration on the screen are two entirely different beasts. And Pollock’s incessant restatement of what we can see with our own eyes, his portentous intoning about the obvious, drags and drags this wallow of rural corruption, perversion, pathology and superstition to a halt.
“Serial murderers aren’t the most trusting kind.”
It’s a fundamental flaw of the producer (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and occasional director Antonio Campos’ film, one that slows its progress and betrays a kind of patronizing remove from the material.
We know rural Protestant America isn’t “salt of the Earth” righteous. We get it thrown in our face on the TV news every day this election cycle. As a grim, two-fisted veteran (Bill Skarsgård) teaches his little boy in “Devil,” “It’s a lotta no-good sons-of-bitches out there.” The movie is full of them. A narrator describing them, when we can what sons-of-bitches they are for ourselves, is just purple prose piling on, without illuminating or explaining them.
How’d these “God fearing” Christians get to be so hateful?
It’s a story of a scattered but connected group of characters from two locales — Coal Creek, West Virginia and Knockemstiff, Ohio, which Pollock called home. We skip through three time settings — 1943, 1957 and 1965 — showing the evil women and men do and have done to them.
Some are preachers, others devout church-goers. And Pollock, whose prose and dialogue is basically Flannery O’Connor with F-bombs — lurid and violent and extreme — preaches a 140 minute sermon of revenge and retribution, not redemption.
Two mothers, a father and a dog are killed in the first act. And things don’t get gentler after that.
The bulk of the story is in the 1965 fictive present, when that boy (Tom Holland), orphaned at nine, has grown up to be the defender of the “pious” step-sister (Eliza Scanlen) his grandmother (Kristin Griffith) raised him with,.
The horrors of his childhood, watching his mother (Haley Bennett) waste away, seeing his father curdle into fundamentalist desperation, soured Arvin on religion. But bullied Lenora still prays at the grave of her murdered-by-her-preacher-husband mama (Mia Wasikowska), and hopes Arvin will be moved by the word. Eventually. But not before he’s applied his late father’s brute-force justice to her tormentors.
A new preacher turns her head, high-pitched voice and ladled-on drawl and all. Hey, he’s got Robert Pattinson‘s sleepy eyes, and that classic English actor’s attempt at “Southern” accent. We get it.
“He’d never win a fist-fight, but he could recite the book of Revelation in his sleep.” Is that a novelistic description, or an author “explaining” the lightweight playing this preacher-predator?
And then there are the “serial murderers” Pollock throws into the mix. Sandy (Riley Keough) is the blonde waitress who has her head turned by “photographer” Carl (Jason Clarke), joining him for his deviant and deadly version of that highway “hobby.”
Only a floozy with a wholly corrupt sheriff (Sebastian Stan) for a brother could get away with what they’ve been doing for years, all along the backroads of West Virginia and southeastern Ohio.
Holland acquits himself admirably in a role that has deeper flaws and more emotional conflict than Spider-Man ever could. Keough, Elvis’s granddaughter, has carved out a nice niche on the trailer trash side of the cinematic tracks.
Clarke and Stan play Appalachian versions of the villains that are becoming specialties. Wasikowska and Bennett are barely in the thing, and more’s the pity.
But we’ve got to show one woman’s murder, because that’s the kind of excess this brand of Gothic traffics in. We need to see a preacher test himself with spiders, because snake-handling is I guess passe in this corner of Appalachia.
Campos spares us no violence, and stops just shy of wallowing in the seedy sexuality, drawing such scenes out in a way that, with all that narration, makes “The Devil All the Time” unfold at a miniseries pace. The tendency to explain every character’s fate, and in graphic detail, betrays a literal attention to the novel that feels burdensome.
There are deaths we don’t need to see, fates we don’t need to know, scenes that don’t move the story forward.
A little mystery and a lot less narration would have better-served this sordid saga.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, bloody/disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity, and language throughout
Cast: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Haley Bennett, Jason Clarke, Eliza Scanlen and Sebastian Stan.
Credits: Directed by Antonio Campos, script by Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos, based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:18