Impeccably acted and directed with unwavering confidence by Antonio Campos, Netflix's The Devil All the Time is a hellish ride from start to finish, but in the best way possible. It isn't merely content with criticising religion in a matter-of-fact manner, it's gunning for obliteration. It wants to take a rusty World War 2 Luger and shoot it between the eyes.
Campos performs an autopsy on the allure of organised religion, and those who succumb to it. Neither the idea of God, nor the people who believe in it, the movie says, are sane. It is no coincidence that the most overzealous characters in the film all appear to be in need of an immediate exorcism. There is a delirium in their eyes as they perform sermons before a sedated crowd.
Watch the trailer of "The Devil All the Time" here
The Devil All the Time tries to attribute this insanity to the fact that in post-war Knockemstiff, Ohio — a town of 400 in the middle of middle of nowhere — everyone is 'connected by blood by one calamity or another.' But in reality, Knockemstiff is just like the rest of America — stunned into a stupor by the promise of salvation.
Borrowing liberally — both in terms of tone and tempo — from Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece, There Will be Blood, Campos attempts to investigate the reasons behind America's moral corruption. The rot, he discovers, set in decades ago.
Our story begins immediately after the war, when a PTSD-ridden soldier named Willard Russell, played by Bill Skarsgård, returns home to his hamlet, and finds that he has nothing better to do than to impregnate the local waitress and perform beatdowns on common criminals. His idle mind, having personally invited the devil to work in it, becomes obsessed with the idea of regaining his lost faith. And so he builds a little church for himself in his backyard. He will sacrifice not only his sanity, but also his life in this pursuit.
Years later, Willard's young adult son, having assumed the mantle of protagonist, is haunted by the sins of his father. Played by Tom Holland, Arvin lives with his devotee grandparents and a step-sister, Lenora. He adores her, but when she falls prey to a perverted new preacher in town, played by Robert Pattinson, Arvin is forced to seek retribution.
He has no choice, he says. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that is what he believes in. Arvin is the least religious character in the film, and despite his murderous mission, also its moral centre. The movie is quite ham-fisted that way.
The godman problem isn't unique to India, just as blind faith isn't unique to America. Look closely, and you'll observe psychological patterns between Pattinson's Reverend Preston Teagardin and the baba next-door. But while the notorious Ram Rahim Singh Insaan appeared to be channelling Daler Mehndi, Reverend Teagardin seems to have been possessed by the spirit of Daniel Plainview.
This Pattinson performance is something else. It might be the last time we see him swing for the fences before we lose him to blockbusters for a few years. The sheer courage of playing an irredeemable predator aside — Pattinson is, you must remember, one of the most desirable men in the world — it's almost as if he deliberately wants to destroy the image that he has built over the years. It's astounding really, if you consider just how carefully other movie stars cultivate their personas. Together with Harry Melling, who once again manages to stand out in a stacked cast, Pattinson seems the most at ease with the film's deliberate language.
There is a luxuriant musicality to the writing that recalls the movies of the Coen Brothers. Even Pattinson's veiled threats sound oddly intoxicating. The Devil all the Time is the sort of sweaty Southern Gothic thriller in which characters have names like Earskell and Leroy; they're perpetually unwashed and constantly swatting at mosquitoes. As fluent as the film is in genre conventions, however, the unrelenting violence and bleak tone might be slightly overwhelming for certain audiences. Especially those who press play expecting a fun romp featuring two Marvel stars, the new Batman, and Elvis' granddaughter.
The movie, pretentiously, never lets you forget just how important it is. By suggesting that God and the devil might be the same person, Campos not only subverts the concept of Christianity, but together with cinematographer Lol Crawley repeatedly hammers home this idea through haunting images. Shots of desecrated crucifixes — one appearing early in the film and another just a few minutes later — are nearly as blasphemous as the one William Friedkin so memorably directed in The Exorcist.
With The Devil All the Time, Netflix is on course for another stellar awards season, having recently released Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things and with prestige dramas by Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher around the corner. Watch it before it's buried five scrolls under a pile of new 'content' next week.