Knockemstiff. Anybody would think it was a name straight out of a writer’s imagination and definitely not to be taken seriously. Not so. It actually exists – in Ohio – and is also the place where Donald Ray Pollock, author of novel The Devil All The Time, was born and raised. It’s also one of the main locations in both the book and Netflix’s southern epic of the same name, but it’s still a moniker that will raise at least an eyebrow. Rather like the film itself.
Holding together the various strands of the story are father and son Willard (Bill Skarsgard) and Arvin Russell (played as a boy by Michael Banks Repeta, and as an adult by Tom Holland). Back from World War II, Willard settles down in Knockemstiff with new wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett), finds religion and becomes a father. But when Arvin is nine, his mother is diagnosed with cancer and all the praying in the world can’t save her or the tragic consequences. He’s sent to live with his grandparents in Coal Creek, growing up along with stepsister Leonora (Eliza Scanlen), for whom he’s a protective big brother.
That’s the story at the core, but running in parallel, and always connected to the main action, is a series of sub-plots. When Willard and Charlotte first meet, their paths cross with those of Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough), a couple of would-be serial killers who prey on young male hitch-hikers. Her brother is the local sheriff Bodecker (a portly Sebastian Stan), who is standing for re-election and will stop at nothing to keep his job. As a teenager, Leonora becomes infatuated with the new preacher in town, Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) and her fate prompts Arvin to follow his late father’s advice about choosing your moment when it comes to standing up to the bullies.
In true Netflix style, it’s another star studded cast, but in a world far away from the usual actioner. The Devil All The Time is a sweaty, sprawling gothic noir – violent to the point of brutal, hampered by an over leisurely pace but with some intriguing casting, especially when it comes to allowing actors more familiar in a superhero context to show off their acting chops. Top of the pile is the next Dark Knight, man of the moment Robert Pattinson as the amoral preacher, hell bent on exploiting his position for all its worth, in every way he can think of. Holland makes for a lower-key leading man, but is solid and appealing enough to garner our support. There’s one other character, however, who we never see, but we get to know really well. The seductively sardonic narrator – actually voiced by Donald Ray Pollock himself – who, as the narrative progresses, becomes increasingly involved and inclined to pass judgement on the characters, one of whom he labels a “sick f*ck.” His voice adds another dimension to proceedings, as well as a welcome touch of dark humour.
The film’s themes are at least as many as its plots, with religion and corrupt authority figures spending the most time in the spotlight. The devoutly religious are extremely – and dangerously – so, but their faith is exploited, especially when it comes to Pattinson’s congregation who pin their loyalty on a forerunner of all those disgraced TV evangelists. Not that the film is totally bleak – there is most definitely light at the end of the tunnel – but the multiple story lines, themes and often plodding pace ultimately make for a film with a blurred focus and the sense that this personal saga needed a sharper hand in the editing suite to make a complete success of that leap from the page to the screen.
Drama, Thriller | Cert: 18 | Netflix | 16 September 2020 | Dir. Antonio Campos | Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Bill Skarsgard, Eliza Scanlen, Haley Bennett.