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Netflix’s The Devil All the Time is set in Knockemstiff, Ohio, which is not fictional, although we understandably might assume otherwise. Based on the acclaimed 2011 novel by Daniel Ray Pollock, the film lines up an impressive cast beneath filmmaker Antonio Campos, whose Christine Chubbuck biopic Christine was a hell of a character drama (that almost nobody saw). So will this sprawling Southern Gothic saga knock us stiff or leave us hanging or what?

The Gist: The misery begins in Knockemstiff, 1957. Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) lives there with his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) and boy Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta). In the woods near their humble rented home, Willard put up a “weathered cross,” where he and Arvin can kneel and pray — and where Willard plots to retaliate against the three men who make disparaging comments about their family, which might mean Knockemstiff should be rebranded Clobberthashitouttaem. This is a lesson for the kid, frequently bullied, to “pick your time” for retaliation. The cross is possibly an homage to the one Willard saw in the war, although it was decorated with a crucified American soldier, dripping blood, covered in flies and not dead yet. Willard finished the man off and came home with a haunted look, so maybe the misery began a decade and some earlier, in the South Pacific.

Things in Cold Creek, West Virginia, where Willard grew up, sometimes don’t seem much better. The local preacher, Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), is a pinheaded maniac who dumps live spiders on his face mid-sermon to show how he conquered his fear, and the flock is sure impressed, and if not, they’re sure… something. Roy marries Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who Willard’s mother wanted to pair him with. Roy and Helen have a baby girl who’ll grow up to be Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), raised by Willard’s mom after the parents die horribly. She’ll also raise Arvin from age nine into his teens (Tom Holland) when his parents meet the reaper, but not until after Willard, in a fit of grief and desperation, sacrifices his son’s beloved dog to God. Rough.

Maybe some of this has to do with cancer or God’s perceived will or the pair of serial-killers-slash-sex-weirdos (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke) who call themselves “the bait” and “the shooter” and not just because he has a camera. So it’s the ’60s now, and Arvin and Lenora are tight like blood kin. She visits her mother’s grave and prays, even though she has no memory of the woman, while a brooding Arvin stands nearby, shifting his weight from foot to foot, quietly scoffing at the thought of God ever being kind. The brother of the female killer-slash-sex-weirdo is also a sheriff (Sebastian Stan) investigating the reaper’s work in the area, when he isn’t entangled in the doings of organized crooks.

The successor to the spider preacher dies I think — memory fails, but it’s safe to assume if a character leaves the narrative, it’s due to grim cessation — and the new one arrives in ruffled shirts and Cadillac and he’s Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) and you can just smell the oil on this f—er. In this world, people are all too familiar with sin and violence and sin and death and sin and sin and God and sin, and in Knockemstiff and Cold Creek, all this stuff coagulates into one steamy swampy pool of abominant iniquity. Someone let me write this region’s tourism brochures!

The Devil All The Time: Tom Holland as Arvin Russell
Photo: Glen Wilson/Netflix

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Devil All the Time consists of some backwoods Deliverance scenery, the airlessness of The Place Beyond the Pines, some shots swiped from Miller’s Crossing, and a general sense of wanting to be a tangled, Paul Thomas Anderson-esque rumination on brutality.

Performance Worth Watching: Pattinson really oozes off with this movie, all sleaze as he chews succulently on the part of the corrupted holy man — who should be cage-matched with Eli “The Boy” Sunday in a slippery deathfight of false-godliness.

Memorable Dialogue: “He’d never win a fistfight, but he could recite the book of Revelation in his sleep.” — the narrator nutshells Preston Teagardin

Sex and Skin: Fair amounts of both, although none of it is at all pleasurable, and it’s pretty much exclusively violent.

Our Take: Well, this movie sure lives up to its god damned name. Murder, beatings, suicide, torture, war crimes — The Devil All the Time has it all. And that’s just the death stuff; we might suffocate on its air of psychotraumatic horror if it took itself seriously, as more than a thin and joyless horror parade of plausibility, because it reminds us that yes, the human creature is capable of plumbing the hoary deeps of perversion and lust and bloodthirst, often for their own ghoulish sakes. The film is almost engrossing in its depiction of crestfallen humanity.

Strange then, how the film nurtures such an odd, almost sneeringly humorous black-comic tone, primarily via Pollock himself, in an ill-advised role as narrator — you can almost hear a matter-of-fact smirk in his voice. Yet the cynical comedy is half-cultivated by Campos, as if he wants to both acknowledge tragedy and laugh at life in all its absurd pointlessness. His ramshackle approach renders the film a willow-legged facsimile of a Coen Brothers production. It bullseyes religion as not only a corrupting force but one that enables the gullible to be devoured by predators, as subtle as an elephant in the cheesecake.

So the overall vibe of this thing is off-key and disquieting, a sprawling epic of brutality populated with an ensemble of talented players handcuffed to gossamer characters with a shade-and-a-half of complexity, tops. The top-billed Holland, known for playing a squeaky-voiced teen Spider-Man, is miscast as a sulky kid carrying a chunk of angry coal in his heart; the film lays out his bloody escape path, but we’re barely convinced, or even cognizant, of his needs, wants or inner life. Stan, Bennett and Wasikowska are afterthoughts, Clarke and Keough are boilerplate godless chaos agents, Skarsgard is angry and angrier, Pattinson and Melling are window dressing. The narrative exists in the contextual gloom of international conflict, World War II’s shadow overlapping with the impending doom of Vietnam — for the people of Knockemstiff and Cold Creek, there’s death here or death overseas and any other option is lost in a cloud of hardship and despair. Pray to Jesus all you want, ’cause you got it coming either way.

Our Call: SKIP IT. With the exception of Pattinson and his thin trail of slug-grease, the pseudo-pretentious The Devil All the Time is kind of a mess, and no fun whatsoever.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.

Stream The Devil All the Time on Netflix

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