Of the different fables that exist surrounding the name of Knockemstiff, Ohio — the setting for Antonio Campos’ (“Christine”) new film — two of them involve a preacher and one involves a brawl. They all seem appropriate as Tom Holland unleashes his fury on a few nefarious souls as the Avenger once again finds himself in a struggle between good and evil. Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who serves as the film’s narrator, “The Devil All the Time” revolves around religion. Some hide behind it; others are shaped by it; all are influenced by it.
Sounding like Waylon Jennings as The Balladeer on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the film opens with Pollock’s narration, “Now if you ask most people where Knockemstiff, Ohio, or Coal Creek, West Virginia, were, they probably couldn’t point them out to you on a map.” The two rural areas are central to our Southern Gothic tale replete with generations of characters.
Bill Skarsgård (“It”) without the Pennywise makeup resembles a young Michael Shannon. He plays Willard Russell, a World War II veteran suffering from PTSD. Skarsgård may not be playing a character out of a Stephen King novel this time around, but the king of horror’s presence is felt as Campos fills the screen with creepy images that include a bloodied soldier covered in flies on a WWII battlefield and in a scene reminiscent of “Pet Sematary.” A makeshift wooden cross buried deep in the woods serves as a prayer log where Willard and his 9-year old son Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) come to ask the Lord for miracles. Skarsgård delivers the most intense performance in the film.
Robert Pattinson immediately becomes the center of attention in every scene he’s in as the English actor seems out of place in the Cormac McCarthy setting, which is exactly why he’s perfect for the role of Reverend Preston Teagardin. Just one look at the Cadillac-driving preacher and you’re not sure if he’s selling God or snake oil. Pattinson, speaking in a squeaky southern drawl, uses his influence as a man of God to seduce young innocent women including teenager Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), a devout churchgoer.
The film’s protagonist is played by Tom Holland who has become famous for his role as Spider-Man in the Marvel universe. Holland plays the young adult version of Arvin Russell who becomes very protective of his stepsister Lenora after she is constantly bullied at school. You could say the actor is still in superhero mode as Arvin drifts through the film function as one of God’s 12 Avenging Angels. It is great to see Holland display his versatility, shedding his boyish charm for a darker role surrounded by people who are more wicked than any villain he encountered as the web-slinger.
The exceptional cast also includes Jason Clarke as a serial killer named Carl who lures in hitchhikers with the help of his promiscuous girlfriend Sandy (Riley Keough) and Sebastian Stan as her brother, a crooked sheriff caught between family and the law.
The film’s 138-minute runtime is justified by the depth of the story, which features an abundance of memorable characters whose lives intersect through several generations. There’s no rest for the wicked or the righteous in this well-crafted thriller elevated by a terrific cast.