Saturday, September 19, 2020


Hell is, as Sartre tells us, other people, and that’s certainly the source of evil in Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time. Here’s a litany of human ugliness and violence consistently inflicted on and by a couple families over the course of a couple decades in small-town backwoods Appalachia in the middle of the last century. It’s just about as far north as you can take a Southern Gothic tale—the eccentric misery without the humid atmosphere. Based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who also narrates in a nice honeyed tone that gives a layer of slightly wry literary gravitas to the dark goings-on, the film contains murders, suicides, poverty, con men, serial killers, animal cruelty, trauma, and madness, all drenched in a self-righteous pseudo-religiosity that’s the cause of and solution to their problems. Campos, whose films like his previous Christine or early breakout Afterschool have similar interests in violence and mental unravellings of one sort or another, treats the procession of this narrative with a grave seriousness. He regards his characters with the squirm-inducing attention to their terrible fates that one associates with a butterfly pinned in a display case. Lol Crawley’s elegantly textured cinematography, all blasts of sun and evocative shadow in a CinemaScope-sized frame, gives a tony prestige to the images, even and especially as the nastiness accrues. The cast is uniformly haunted: wide stares, pale skin, curling lips chewing over every gnarled line with pulpy accent work. There’s a WWII vet (Bill Skarsgård) scarred by his experiences and trying to start a family with a nice lady (Haley Bennett). There’s a creepy photographer (Jason Clarke) and his wife (Riley Keough). There are two different slimy preachers (Harry Melling and, later, Robert Pattinson). There’s a cop (Sebastian Stan), a devout young woman (Mia Wasikowska), and a couple of troubled orphans (Tom Holland and Eliza Scanlen). These lives collide in mostly tragic ways over the course of two plus hours, gaining a dreary monotony as each new sequence becomes a waiting game to see which character will exit the murdered and which will walk out the murderer. Either way, blood will be spilled. Few of the human characters walk out alive, and even a few of the animals end up strung up. In the end, it becomes a slog of fine filmmaking put toward a simple idea repetitively asserted: if hell is other people, then the devils are among us.

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