▶ The Devil All the Time is available to stream on Netflix.
“Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957,” Donald Ray Pollock writes at the start of his 2011 novel The Devil All the Time, “nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance.”
The blood that connects these poor souls comes in many forms – the blood of family, the blood of vengeance, the blood of Christ – and it flows liberally throughout Pollock’s book, as the rocky paths traversed by his characters gradually intersect over the course of 20 years.
Pollock was born and raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio, working for decades in a paper mill before taking up writing in his mid-forties, but his literary conception of the town presents it as a world populated by killers and charlatans; hypocritical men of God and corrupt lawmen; a world where pure and just souls barely stand a chance of making it out intact.
Pollock’s preoccupation with religion, violence and perversity carries echoes of authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Jim Thompson, but his writing has a distinct personality that’s all its own. The book often veers towards the grotesque and it is unsparing in its violent imagery, but Pollock’s bleak worldview is leavened by a streak of eccentricity and irony, ensuring the relentless darkness stops short of feeling oppressive, and the fact that his characters are so fully realised.
An instant success when it was published in 2011, Pollock’s debut novel (following his acclaimed short story collection Knockemstiff) always seemed a likely candidate for a film adaptation; in fact, my edition of the book bears a cover quote that says, “If the Coen brothers want their next Oscar they should buy the rights to this book now.”
Almost a decade on, The Devil All the Time has been brought to the screen, but rather than the Coens, it’s in the perhaps more unlikely hands of the young American director Antonio Campos. He had established a strong critical reputation through his three previous, independently produced, full-length features, Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer (2012) and Christine (2016), but it was his work on the longform television series The Sinner (2017-18) that perhaps did most to reassure Netflix, The Devil All the Time’s backers, he was the right fit.
Having been handed the novel by producer and longtime music supervisor Randall Poster, Campos immediately felt that this was something he wanted to tackle, as daunting as the prospect initially seemed. “There’s just so much stuff,” he tells me. “It’s a complicated story, a lot of moving parts. It takes place over the course of a long period of time, and my brother and I were very committed to being faithful, if not to a literal adaptation, then faithful to the essence of the book and Don’s intention.”
Working with his brother Paulo, a first-time screenwriter, Campos spent more than a year drafting and redrafting in an attempt to figure out what they could translate to the screen and what they needed to jettison.
“It’s just the kind of classic way of approaching anything: you write too much and then you bring it in and tighten it up and see how the pieces are connecting. In the beginning we did it without a voiceover – although we knew we wanted to have a voiceover – because we wanted the exercise of writing the script without it, to see where voiceover was wanted or needed.
“Then we started that process of incorporating voiceover, and that really brought it all together. It was a long process because we really did love so much of the book, but it was important that we had to be very brutal with it; like, “We love that but there’s no place for it here, get it out.” We had to make some tough choices.”
The resulting film shows admirable fidelity to Pollock’s vision – even to the extent of having the author read the voiceover narration – but the Campos brothers have filtered and restructured the material judiciously, finding ways to move fluidly back and forth between the various narrative strands and to strike a balance between the large ensemble of characters, which runs from predatory preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) to the meekly devout Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska) and on-the-take sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan).
The closest thing The Devil All the Time has to a central protagonist is Arvin Russell, played as a nine-year-old by Michael Banks Repeta and as a teenager by Tom Holland.
The formative experiences of Arvin’s childhood are centred on his father Willard (Bill Skarsgård), a World War II vet haunted by the horrors he faced in the Pacific, which we fleetingly witness. Arvin watches Willard beat two men senseless for comments they made about his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett), and then sees his father go off the deep end when Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer, losing himself in prayer and animal sacrifices as he pleads in vain with God to save her.
These experiences seem to instil in Arvin a firm sense of justice, which he utilises to fiercely protect his remaining family, and a healthy scepticism for religion, which makes him an outlier in this God-fearing community. The Devil All the Time is otherwise filled with people who use the Lord’s name to justify or excuse their behaviour, or who are prompted to commit extreme acts in the belief that it is God’s will.
Two travelling evangelists, Roy and Theodore, exemplify this spirit. Theodore (Pokey LaFarge) has been confined to a wheelchair ever since he drank strychnine to “test his faith”, while Roy (Harry Melling) – an extravagant showman who habitually covers himself in spiders as part of his sermon – is driven to murder in an attempt to prove that God has given him an ability to resurrect the dead.
Other characters, who may appear less devout on the surface, still seem bound by a twisted kind of ideology. Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough) are a married couple who spend their summers picking up hitchhikers (the attractive Sandy is ‘the bait’) and taking them to isolated spots to be tortured and killed, with amateur photographer Carl capturing their agonising final moments on film. In his voiceover, Pollock observes: “What Sandy didn’t understand was that to his way of thinking, this was the one true religion. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.”
This exploration of religion was one of the things that Campos immediately connected with when he read Pollock’s book. “I was raised by a very devout Catholic mother and grandparents, and also by a father who is Brazilian and was raised going to Catholic school, but ultimately he was disillusioned by religion and wasn’t practising at all,” he explains. “When we went to church on holidays, he would drop us off and say, “I’ll see you in an hour, I’ve been to church enough.” So I was raised in two extremes and I was always fascinated by it, I was fascinated by the rules.
“I never got a proper religious education but I was surrounded by it, so my experience was trying to figure out what was good and what was bad. As I got older, I thought Christianity had a positive message overall, but I always struggled with the way the church operated and the way I saw organised religion operating, that didn’t feel as pure – of course, it’s obvious now that there’s corruption in those institutions.
“People’s faith is complicated and this country’s relationship with faith is very complicated, and the film, without being religious, is exploring that relationship with faith. It’s very much about the way people can justify awful things through their faith and can get people to agree to things because of their faith.
“There’s a direct line in the way someone like Carl operates and the way Teagardin operates. Carl is not religious, but there is this kind of religious aspect to the act that he’s doing, at least in the way he thinks about it and justifies it. They’re almost tied by this delusion, as Teagardin would say.”
Preston Teagardin is the gluttonous and lustful preacher who arrives in Knockemstiff and instantly turns his attention towards the local teenage girls, winning their trust with his honeyed words and grooming them with the promise of private rides in his car.
One of the most unsettling scenes in the film is one of its quietest, when Teagardin takes Arvin’s younger foster sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) on such a drive and encourages her to disrobe for him. “To show yourself, as the Lord made His first children, is to truly turn yourself to Him,” he tells her, and she hesitatingly complies, her faith and trust having been weaponised against her.
Pattinson fully throws himself into the role, giving Teagardin a disarming, seductive quality while refusing to soften his repellent behaviour. “I’m pretty sure Rob was the first one to come in on the movie,” Campos says. “He said he wanted to play Teagardin and I said OK. He had a sense of that character. I think he was drawn to how complicated Teagardin was and where he could go with the character.”
Campos’s casting choices in The Devil All the Time are integral to the film’s success, with many of his actors having to make an impression with limited screen time and find subtle ways to suggest the backstory and offscreen life that Pollock details.
“For me, casting is the most important part of the process when it comes to directing. If you do casting right, you’re halfway there.” he says. “Rob, Tom and Mia [Wasikowska] were the first people that came in, and it set the stage for the casting.
“The other important part of the casting was that it was a mix between recognisable faces and lesser-known actors and almost completely unknown people, who may not even be actors, so it never felt that one frame was filled with too many faces of people you recognised.
“In order to get a film like this right, you need to be aware of that balancing act. You start putting too many faces that people recognise into a film like this, where you want them to get lost in the world, it can be distracting. The way the film is designed is that you only really get these interactions at key moments. You get this scene where Tom connects with Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, or Tom and Rob having their face-off, and it’s satisfying to see those lines connect.”
The sprawling nature of The Devil All the Time is certainly something new for Campos, as is the multiplicity of perspectives and the emotional range the material offers. His three previous features were tightly wound character studies focused on troubled outsiders.
Collaborating with fellow filmmakers Sean Durkin and Josh Mond, whom he met at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Campos made his directorial debut at the age of 24 with 2008’s attention-grabbing Afterschool and followed it in 2012 with Simon Killer, both icily clinical portraits of sociopaths. Christine, his 2016 film about Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide live on television in 1974, displayed a greater warmth and sensitivity, as well as proving his ability to evoke a period setting.
When his production company Borderline Films – which also made Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and Mond’s James White (2015) – disbanded and rebranded as Borderline Presents around the same time, it gave Campos the opportunity to seek out new collaborators and work on a bigger scale.
That eye for a bigger scale is evident when I ask Campos about the films he and his cinematographer Lol Crawley drew inspiration from ahead of making The Devil All the Time, and he names epics like The Deer Hunter (1978), Heaven’s Gate (1980) and The Godfather (1972), as well as Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963).
“We were going back to classic American cinema and embracing the scope,” he says and as we talk it becomes clear that he is an ambitious filmmaker keen to expand the scope of his vision and continually test the boundaries of his filmmaking abilities.
“I’m aware that the canvases I want to be painting on are getting bigger, and I’m more excited by building worlds and being able to play in a bigger playground,” he says. “It’s important to me to branch out as a filmmaker, and like you said, I’ve progressively gotten bigger in terms of scope, but it just sort of happened that way.
“Everyone is different and goes through a different process, but for me I’m just drawn to what I’m drawn to in the moment, and I let that process be organic. Making movies is such a crazy ordeal you don’t know which one is going to take off, but with this one we were so focused on trying to get it made. It was such a labour of love.”
Originally published: 16 September 2020