Producers: Randall Poster, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker and Max Born   Director: Antonio Campos   Screenplay: Antonio Campos and Paolo Campos   Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Robert Pattinson, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Michael Banks Repeta, Kristin Griffith, Haley Bennett, Harry Melling, Eloise Landrum, Douglas Hodge, Pokey LaFarge, David Atkinson and Donald Ray Pollock   Distributor: Netflix

Grade:  B

There are no doubt lovely places in the area where the two states meet, but the towns of Knockemstiff, Ohio, and nearby Coal River, West Virginia are locations that—at least on the evidence of the Donald Ray Pollock novel of 2011 from which Antonio Campos’ film was adapted—you might not want to visit.  They were filled with violent people in the 1950s and 1960s, and might still be today.  (Despite its name, Knockemstiff actually exists—it’s where Pollock was born.)  Of course, spending a couple of hours there from the comfort of your living room could be something you’ll want to consider, if you have the stomach for some pretty grim portrayals of folks brought up in the more fundamentalist forms of rustic American Christianity—the old time religion William Jennings Bryan would no doubt have championed.

Tom Holland is first-billed in the movie’s cast, playing a young fellow named Arvin Russell, but the actor doesn’t actually appear until forty minutes or so into “The Devil All the Time.” The first portion of the picture is devoted to Arvin’s father Willard (Bill Skarsgård), a G.I. returning from World War II in 1945 after the traumatic experience of finding a Marine crucified alive by the Japanese and having to put the man out of his misery.  On the way home to his mother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and Uncle Earskell (David Atkinson), he stops at a diner where he falls immediately in love with a waitress, Charlotte (Haley Bennett). 

Emma has other notions about whom he should marry—in fact, she’s promised the Lord he’ll wed Helen (Mia Wasikowska), an orphan to whom she is close.  But that is not to be, and Helen will instead marry Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who comes to town with his wheelchair-bound, guitar-strumming partner Theodore (Pokey LaFarge).  Willard does in fact marry Charlotte, and they settle down with their son Arvin (played as a child by Michael Banks Repeta).  During their years together Willard becomes very religious, but in a private way—he erects a cross on a log in the woods behind their hilltop home, and prays intently there, his son at his side.  He also teaches the boy never to back down from confronting evil, and gives a demonstration when two men speak disparagingly of his wife.

When Charlotte falls ill, Willard and Arvin beg God for her recovery, and Willard even goes so far as to turn to sacrifice, Old Testament style, to ensure it.  But his pleas fail, and he cannot bear to go on without his beloved.  That leaves Arvin an orphan who goes to live with Emma and Earskell.  But he will have company there: young Lenora Laferty (Eloise Landrum).  Her mother Helen had been killed by her husband, who was deluded into thinking he could resurrect her and went on the run when he was proven wrong.  Emma took in Lenora, too. 

As for Roy, her father, he was picked up along the road by Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough), a serial-killing couple who specialize in giving hitchers a ride, stopping for a picnic and posing victims with Sandy for photos before murdering them.  Carl and Sandy had also met, coincidentally, at that little diner on very morning that Willard and Charlotte did.

Now effectively brother and sister, and played by Holland and Eliza Scanlen, Arvin and Lenora are close, and he is as protective of her as Willard was of his wife, as he demonstrates when she’s mistreated by three thuggish classmates.  His anger is also aroused when naïve Leonora turns for advice to the charismatic young pastor Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who turns out to be quite a womanizer. 

What follows requires Arvin to leave home abruptly, and whom does he run into on the road but Carl and Sandy?  Their encounter rouses the attention of Sandy’s brother Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), a corrupt sheriff whose dealings with his town’s sleazy boss have already resulted in violence.

As is evident from this litany of sins and sinners, “The Devil All the Time” is a complicated tale.  Fortunately Pollock himself is on hand to serve as narrator, delivering in his crusty drawl not only a continuous rundown on the many characters but not-so-pithy commentary on what they’re up to.  The result, to be honest, doesn’t allow for much more than a sketchy dramatization of the action, which is pulpish to begin with, marked by dialogue more colorful than credible.  But the narrative holds one’s interest as such homespun melodrama tends to do, especially when religion and murder are involved.  (As proof from the same region, there’s “The Night of the Hunter,” by Moundsville, West Virginia native Davis Grubb.  Of course, the film made from it is a masterpiece.  This one isn’t.))

Nor does this sort of ensemble piece invite great acting; but showiness of an entertaining kind is certainly on hand.  The Russell men are rather restrained characters, and so Holland and Skarsgård can’t stand out, but Pattinson certainly thrives on such over-the-top material, and so do Clarke and Melling (as usual, the villains get the best opportunity to chew the scenery).  But everyone does what’s required to draw good, if perfunctory, portraits of characters that haven’t much depth.  The technical side of the movie is certainly effective, with Craig Lathrop’s production design and Lol Crawley’s cinematography of high quality; the period detail is careful, though it doesn’t always look truly lived-in.  Pacing is slow, but that’s more the result of Campos’ languid direction rather than Sofia Subercaseaux’s editing, while the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans pumps up the action. 

“The Devil All the Time” is pretty empty entertainment, but it is entertaining—in a rather sordid, guilty-pleasure kind of way.