I am Southern. I was born and raised in the South. I have deep roots here, my family owning a small piece of land for 300 years. I have raised my children in the South. I’ll likely die here in the South.
My experience with the South, however, has changed dramatically since I moved away from home. I live in a more urban area populated with more diversity than from where I came. Diversity of culture. Diversity of faith. Diversity of economy.
But the area my family calls home still seems stuck in its past. That rural area – replete with dusty backroads and fields of corn and thick clusters of pine trees – remains firmly lodged in the socio-economic politics of decades long past. It also prominently features countless numbers of one-room churches across the landscape. When President Obama proclaimed way back in 2008 that many white working-class Americans “cling to guns or religion,” he was talking about the people I knew growing up in my little corner of the rural South. He was perhaps unexpectedly previewing Trumpism, something that lives and thrives today whether people want to admit it or not.
These are the people my family calls friends. People I know. People I grew up with.
Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time (based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock) takes place in locations between West Virginia and Knockemstiff, Ohio, but that’s just geography. The traditions displayed in the film are not specific to this one area. They are not geographically bound. Rather, they are timeless traditions as anchored in religion as they are in family, food, and firearms. I don’t need to have grown up in West Virginia or Ohio to know the people that populate The Devil All the Time.
I knew them all in Eastern North Carolina plain as day, and for the most part, this brutal tale rings true.
I have not read Pollock’s novel, but Campos’s film sprawls decades as it intersects the lives of people touched by war, violence, poverty, and religion. Despite the grim offenses committed throughout the film (and there are many, many, many grim offenses), I would very much like to read the novel. Campos admirably serves up strong performances coupled with themes that resonate still today. Yet, you can’t watch the film and not think he’s struggled to wrestle what I assume to be a challenging source material. There is enough good material here to warrant a look, but you can’t watch the film and not think a measure of greatness eludes it.
Tom Holland impresses as Arvin Russell, the central character in the film who is directly impacted by the culture of violence in the world around him. His sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) is the picture of a good and true religious young girl until she’s corrupted by a traveling preacher (a very good Robert Pattinson). The central theme of the film involves Arvin trying to break away from a culture and cycle of violence. His poor family clings to religion because that’s what they know. It’s the center of their small corner of the world. It’s how they socialize. It’s how they learn. It’s how they live. Unfortunately, the outside world touches them in very negative ways.
One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Arvin’s grandmother fretting over a special dish to prepare for Pattinson’s new preacher. She has no money for fancy ingredients, but she’s a great cook and aims to impress. When she prepares a very low country dish of chicken livers, Pattinson uses the dish to praise her efforts despite her meager finances to the assembled congregation. She is, of course, mortified.
It’s as real of a moment as you’ll see in a film this year. Trust me.
I wish the film had been afforded the opportunity to linger on moments like that more. Pollock’s novel apparently covers a great deal of ground, so the film rushes breathlessly from character to character, plot point to plot point, until it borders on exhaustion. You shouldn’t be surprised that, in the midst of the story, there’s a serial killer couple who attract hitchhiking men, murder them, and take naked pictures with the corpse.
Devil is a powerful and, in my opinion, entertaining film filled with powerful and committed performances. Its themes of religion and the cycle of poverty/religion/violence are things I understand given my upbringing. Not the serial murderers, of course, but those who cling to their Bibles and guns. It’s the life they know, and I do wish the film had taken the time to expand upon those themes. To languish on the culture a little longer here and there. To understand that the violence, while gratuitous at times, resonates better when there is time to let it sink in from incident to incident.
By the end of the film, when a character contemplates signing up for the Vietnam War, you’re struck with an overwhelming sadness. The character fails to recognize all of the options that exist even in this part of the world. That he fails to realize he’s reliving this cycle of violence is the greatest tragedy of all.
And the lingering thoughts the film impresses upon you with will haunt you for days.