Unless you’re already a fan of the book (in which case, bully for you for being ahead of the game!), then the biggest selling point of Antonio Campos’ The Devil All The Time is likely to be its cast. After all, who could resist the reunion of Marvel buddies Tom Holland and Sebastian Stan, the talent of up-and-comers Bill Skarsgård and Eliza Scanlen, and the way Robert Pattinson shouts “Delusions!” in the film’s trailer? In fact, this all-star cast is the film’s greatest asset, bringing to life its tragic tale of loss, grief, and the pitfalls of unwavering faith.
Set between the ultra-rural, decidedly Christian towns of Knockemstiff, Ohio and Coal Creek, West Virginia, it centres on a reserved young man, Arvin Russell (Holland), as he comes of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Tragedy has followed Arvin ever since he was a child, leaving him with a head full of traumatic memories and a heart drowning in resentment. He cares so deeply for his family – particularly his stepsister Lenora (Scanlen) – that he will do anything to protect them, which often leads to violent, angry outbursts from the otherwise unassuming teen. But his actions are fuelled by love and a desire for justice, and you can’t help but want the best for him.
Holland is astounding as Arvin, bringing a captivating mix of maturity and naivety to the role. His quiet, often withdrawn portrayal particularly stands out against Robert Pattinson’s zealous reverend, Preston Teagardin, who is harbouring a sinister secret. Pattinson is ultimately convincing as a frighteningly fervent orator, but his theatricality borders on melodramatic at times, and it creates a jarring contrast to Holland’s more subtle performance in one key scene.
But there’s not a single weak link in this extraordinary cast. A surprising standout is Harry Melling as Roy Laferty, an unshakeably devout preacher who believes he has a divine purpose on Earth. Even with relatively little screen time, Melling turns Roy into an incredibly nuanced character, which is unexpected given the preacher’s terrifying demeanour. There’s more to him than the menacing expression and booming voice that puts the fear of God into his congregation (and us), and Melling is completely committed to digging deep into his complexity.
Skarsgård makes an equally lasting impression as Arvin’s father Willard, a war veteran and devout Christian tormented by the horrors he’s witnessed. Like Roy, Willard becomes blinded by his piety, and it’s his son who suffers the consequences. Rounding out the cast is Mia Wasikowska’s meek housewife Helen and Sebastian Stan’s run-of-the-mill sheriff Lee Bodecker, along with Riley Keough as Lee’s sister Sandy and Jason Clarke as her husband Carl. Far from your average married couple, Sandy and Carl have a sick, deadly obsession that takes them from town to town. Their story is given almost as much attention as Arvin’s, and for most of the film’s runtime it’s unclear what exactly it’s leading to and why it’s pulling focus, but the pay-off is worth it.
While the film is an overall slow-burner, suspense is built compellingly in certain scenes, especially those that involve Arvin unintentionally taking on the role of local vigilante and seeking justice. The plot becomes a bit repetitive here, but not to the point where the sequences all blur together. They’re all key moments in Arvin’s story, and each is memorable in its own way.
It’s baffling that the film has been criticised for its grimness. How can a story full of corruption, abuse and death be depicted any other way? The dark cloud that hangs over Arvin and those around him is so dense, there’s no room for even a single wisecrack. It’s a truly bleak tale, and Campos rightly treats it as such. The film may be too slow and meandering for some, but it’s undoubtedly worth a watch for the cast’s stellar performances alone.