“The Devil All the Time”: Themes of the Tight Reverberations of 20th Century Appalachia

Written By: Kristina Norgard

“The Devil All the Time” was released on Netflix on Sept. 16, 2020. The film is rated R and runs for two hours and 18 minutes. It is based on the book with the same title written in 2011 by Donald Ray Pollock, who also happens to narrate the film as well. The crime-drama thriller stars an incredibly stacked list of talent, Tom Holland–known for “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “The Impossible”–as Arvin, Bill Skarsgård–known for “It,” “Allegiant”–as Willard, Sebastian Stan –known for “Avengers: Endgame,” “Gossip Girl”– as Deputy Lee Bodecker, Riley Keough–known for “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “American Honey”–as Sandy, Harry Melling–known for the “Harry Potter” films–as Roy, along with Eliza Scanlen–known for “Little Women,” “Sharp Objects”–as Lenora, and Robert Pattinson–known for “Good Time,” “The Lighthouse”–as Rev. Preston Teagardin. The film was directed by Antonio Campos–known for “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Afterschool.” According to IMDB the logline for the film is “Sinister characters converge around a young man devoted to protecting those he loves in a postwar backwoods town teeming with corruption and brutality.” 

The story follows the horrific and haunting intertwining fates of the impoverished, serial-killing, war-scarred and ever-faithfully Christian Appalachian region in the mid-20th century. Particularly, the audience follows the storyline of Willard, a traumatized veteran and his equally if not more traumatized son, Arvin. “The Devil All the Time” is not at all for the faint of heart, as it is riddled with disturbing scenes. In an interview with SlashFilm, Antonio Campos describes Donald Ray Pollock’s book as “this amazing hybrid of Southern Gothic literature and hard-boiled fiction….[a] dark, bleak drama about the trauma of religion.” Since the film chronicles many decades through a abundance of characters and personalities, Campos had to be clever “to capture the essence of all the other strands and round out all these characters but never lose sight of that main thrust, which is the Willard/Arvin narrative,” in which he was brilliantly successful at accomplishing.

Several critics have given their thoughts about “The Devil All the Time” on Rotten Tomatoes currently a mild success sitting with a score of 65% from the professional critics and 81% from the amateurs at home. James Berardinelli from ReelViews applauds the film as “Engrossing but conventional – a well-told story whose evocative setting and vivid performances combine to produce a grim and lurid tableau,” and from Dennis Schwartz, who concisely and aptly described the film, “Has a brutal honesty.” Nevertheless, not all critics perceive similarly, Robert Levin from Newsday stated, “To watch it is to suffer right along with its miserable characters, desperate for some ray of hope or sunshine to peek through the heavy portents of death,” and Yasser Medina from Cinemaficionados felt as though the film’s point was made and then missed, “A thriller that has a promising start reflected, I suppose, by a commentary about the contradictions of religious faith and the darkest corners of human morality, but the lack of verve takes its toll on the hyperlink narrative.”

The plausibly most devastating and heartbreaking part of the film is at around an hour and thirty minutes, where the audience should certainly understand that this is not a happy story, and all hope seems to be lost for both the characters and those watching. The reverberations of the themes of poverty and lack of education and opportunity, generationally invested PTSD affected by war, orphans, indoctrination of religion, toxicity of societal expectations of masculinity and the abuse and manipulation of women are tightly and poignantly portrayed. However, the film at this point still has forty-eight minutes left, and Campos executes it fairly well.

With the sinking plot twists, devastating characters and horrifying themes, “The Devil All the Time” accomplishes portraying the traumatizing tropes in the niche locale of mid-20th-century Appalachia. The film is worth watching if you enjoy films with deep and dark themes. The messages in the film comments on the internal demons that succeed in finding their way to the smallest populations in Appalachia to the greater-societal circumstances at large. And some might watch for interest in the performances by the star-studded cast. Grab a friend with an open mind for conversation post-screening, a strong stomach to handle the more graphic scenes and stream on Netflix sometime between your midterm studies this semester.

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