The Devil All the Time opens with a road map spanning villages with singing names like Coal Creek (the cove of coal) or Knockemstiff (spread it out steep). Bleds of forest, between Ohio and West Virginia, where the comings and goings of the citizens seem magnetized to the gas station and to the church. Pick-up atmosphere, denim overalls and threadbare cap. In the footsteps of a veteran of the Pacific War, struck on his way home by love at first sight for a redhead waitress from diner, the film settles in a community where everyone is a cousin more or less distant from his neighbor. We witness the little merry-go-round of a mother who promised the Lord to marry her son to the village lame girl if he returned safe and sound from the war, to the bluegrass sermons of a preacher with azure eyes who offers his body to swarms of spiders to prove their total devotion to the congregation, and the hitchhiker hunt of a predatory swinging couple. This portrait of America hillbillies, seductive with wetness, surprises with the way he sabotages himself.
For an hour, the devil all the time looks like a fire, devouring the destinies he has just installed, offering his characters one after the other as a sacrifice. Whether they are manifestations of fate or chance, these brutal, dramatic and sometimes funny eruptions give Antonio Campos’ film a false air of Fargo, Noah Hawley’s series, similarly focused on small communities where wolves and lambs hunt each other. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their eyes turned to a desperately empty sky in which they seek a sign, a presence that could save them.
Based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock, whose thick drawling voice Midwesterner serves as an omniscient narrator, the devil all the time really focuses on the next generation. After this first volatile and turbulent movement, the film stabilizes around the figure of Arvin, a kid crippled by the madness of a veteran father with whom the greatest moment of complicity was the derailment he inflicted on the parents of schoolchildren who his son said sadly at recess. Clinging to the character of Tom Holland (the latest version of Marvel’s Spider-Man), who is relieved of the last shreds of innocence that remained to him, the film loses in urgency, in danger, and runs out of breath when hanging up the side choir of his story, with a story of a dirty cop who laboriously sutures the whole.
Without becoming frankly unpleasant, the film falls into line and presses with too much force on the buttons that it has pressed from the beginning. A reverend with a beautiful goofy ambiguity (crazy resurrection scene) is hunted by another flatly predator (Robert Pattinson back among the vampires), fleeting glances to the sky turn into manic prayers. And we are a little bored to hear ourselves repeat that by way of devil there are only men with catastrophic moral choices.
The Devil, all the time d’Antonio Campos on Netflix.