Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time is a hard movie to characterize but an easy one to describe: it’s a dense hillbilly noir thriller that takes place over several decades, throughout which we followed the tangled webs of a handful of denizens of a small Ohio town. I say hard to characterize because the narrative scope of the film (which is based on Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel of the same name) is fairly ambitious — it might be cheating to call it novelistic, seeing as how it’s based on a novel to begin with. But it’s the kind of ambition that has become rare in movies these days.
Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) has spent his entire life in the backwoods of Ohio, mainly raised by his grandmother after the death (of cancer) of his mother (Haley Bennett) and the death (by suicide) of his father (Bill Skarsgård) soon thereafter. Raised alongside Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), a family friend left with his grandmother after the death of her parents, Arvin has spent his entire life just barely beating the odds. The arrival of an unctuous preacher (Robert Pattinson) with a nefarious influence sends Arvin’s already-precarious life into what he thinks is a tailspin — but what is actually just more aftershocks from a life that has been defined and molded by violence.
In this day and age, it seems a given that any adaptation project will be considered for a TV series first. For Campos, this was never a question. “We considered it from all angles,” he says. “The thing is there’s problems with a miniseries approach here, as well. What we felt is that the experience of reading the book is so intense that we wanted to capture that experience. That, to us, wasn’t a miniseries; that was a film. The challenge of making it a film was the greater challenge, and we embraced that. The trick of moving through time and moving from character to character was really what we got excited about, and what we were constantly being inventive about doing — taking big leaps in time with the snap of a finger.”
The Devil All the Time is a thematically and narratively brutal movie — full of death and violence and misery, but not a particularly graphic one. Campos is careful to let the impact of the scenes play out rather than focus on them graphically.
“The way that I tend to shoot violence, a lot of it is offscreen, and a lot of it is fast and sudden and pointed,” Campos explains. “The death count in this film is pretty low, it’s just that the scenes that are violent are very intense and suspenseful. When someone dies, it’s a character you’ve gotten to know, it’s not just a random person that’s been knocked off by your hero. It’s a person that you know where they’re coming from, what their MO is, and like that — they’re gone.”
Another interesting aspect is the soundtrack. Though there is a certain amount of the old-timey white gospel music one might expect from the setting (complete with a cameo from ragtime blues revivalist Pokey LaFarge as the sinister hype man for a doubly sinister preacher played by Harry Melling), the majority of the film’s diegetic music is of the whitebread, pop-country variety. By forgoing the clichés of soundtracking a period that suggest the best choice for any scene is the most obviously period-associated one (i.e. any scene set in 1965 should have whatever Beatles song came out in that year, because one automatically associates 1965 with the Beatles), Campos creates a very particular atmosphere.
“The producer on the film was a music supervisor, Randy Poster,” says Campos. “So much of the process of writing it was creating these really awesome playlists of gospel, folk and pop-country music from the time. It was intentionally not exactly what you think of when you think of 1965, but what would be playing in the world of the movie.”
There’s something timeless about the material here, and not just the period it’s set in (which ranges from the early 50s to 1965), but because the source material is entrenched in the Southern Gothic tradition of writers like Jim Thompson or Cormac McCarthy.
“In my mind, it’s a movie that should feel like it’s always kind of existed,” says Campos. “Because it is grounded in so much classic Americana cinema, particularly of the ’70s — there’s Badlands in there, there’s The Deer Hunter, The Godfather — all these films are the touchstones that we looked at. There’s this kind of grand, sweeping approach to the way we shot it, but it’s this kind of backwoodsy world that might not have gotten that approach before. It’s grounded in a lot of classic imagery and cinema, but dealing with characters that might not have had that kind of approach before.” ∎
The Devil All the Time is on Netflix as of Wednesday, Sept. 16. Watch the trailer here:
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