By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — Satan does seem to be having his way around the clock in the harrowingly grim, mayhem-ridden drama “The Devil All the Time” (Netflix). In fact, various forms of perversity are so pervasive in the film that it skirts the border of the offensive.
As a result, while the serious artistic intent underlying it is clear, this is strictly a movie for those in search of challenging material.
A shocking prelude sets the tone: While serving in the Solomon Islands in the last year of World War II, Marine Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) comes across a moribund comrade who has been flayed and crucified by the enemy. He quickly finishes him off with a shot to the head.
Although, unsurprisingly, the incident haunts Willard, the vet returns to civilian life and settles down to a happily married — if hardscrabble — existence with wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) and son Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta). But such stability as they enjoy is not to last.
After Arvin is orphaned, he finds refuge with his grandmother, Emma (Kristin Griffith). He also forms a close friendship with Emma’s vulnerable adopted daughter, Lenora (first portrayed by Ever Eloise Landrum, then by Eliza Scanlen), a bond that lasts well into adulthood, during which Arvin is played by Tom Holland.
Pious and weak-willed, Lenora falls under the sway of the new minister in town, the Rev. Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). His seduction of her leads to a tragedy in the aftermath of which Arvin once again finds himself on his own.
He takes to the road hoping to return to the town he lived in with his parents. Along the way, he encounters Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl (Jason Clarke) Henderson, whose idea of fun is to take pornographic photos of Sandy with male hitchhikers, then kill the travelers. The couple’s crimes are partially enabled by the fact that Sandy’s brother Lee (Sebastian Stan) is the local sheriff.
Adapted from the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who narrates), director and co-writer — with his brother, Paulo — Antonio Campos’ Southern Gothic-tinged tale is relentlessly bleak. It also portrays the fear-driven evangelical Christianity Arvin encounters at every turn as deeply twisted.
Thus Willard is shown to veer between shunning God and appealing to him with fanatical fervor. And another minister, Lenora’s dad, Roy (Harry Melling in a mesmerizing turn), becomes mentally unhinged.
One plot point involves violent revenge. But the depiction of it is in not designed to rile viewers or appeal to their baser instincts. Instead, like much else that transpires, a sense of dread surrounds the situation and it amounts to just one more turn on an ever downward spiral.
Mature discernment is required to sort through everything the picture throws at its audience. Indeed, by the time they reach its ambiguous conclusion, movie fans may feel as though Pollock and Campos are toying with them. Accordingly, a thick skin and buoyant spirits are the necessary equipment for anyone undertaking this long journey through life’s darker side.
The film contains frequent gory violence, gruesome images, a vengeance theme, a suicide, strong sexual content, including aberrant behavior, semi-graphic nonmarital sexual activity and images of rear and upper female nudity, several profanities, a few milder oaths and much rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.