The devil himself does not appear in The Devil All the Time, his name instead used like the founder of a franchise restaurant, a nod to an original recipe. Impressive as it is, the whole film can risk feeling like a themed pastiche, a stylised exercise in Southern Gothic cooked up by film-maker Antonio Campos and a stellar cast headlined by Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson. Our setting, a narrator informs us with a cornbread-and-ashtray drawl, is the Appalachian hamlet of Knockemstiff, Ohio. At this point, you may protest. The voice, all right. But Knockemstiff? Oh, do give over.
The narrator is in fact Donald Ray Pollock, writer of the 2011 novel Campos is adapting, longtime resident of altogether real speck-on-the-map Knockemstiff. The film is no spoof, as you will soon register. Even so, the smallness of the town means a striking amount of calamity per head — a relentless eisteddfod of violence and kink. How big does a belly need to be to have this much under it? Though the story divides into two periods — 1957 and a decade later — Campos first takes us to an apple-pie diner in the wake of the second world war. That waitress and customer meeting cute? The bashful GI having coffee? It all ends badly — and if that sounds like a spoiler, Pollock tells you at the time.
The narration is omnipresent enough to suggest payment by the word. But Campos’s film-making is a marvel, sushi-knife precise. Even at its grimmest, you’re gripped. The danger is the sense of being brought here to gawp, that Knockemstiff is a hillbilly zoo. The endless outlandishness is summed up by a dandyish Pattinson. Cast as a grifting preacher, he helps himself to the goodwill of the townsfolk, then rants from the nave about their “dee-lew-shunz”.
But then, how achingly sad is that? A town cries out for God, only to be given Robert Pattinson dressed like a bingo caller. The script is full of these bitter little jokes, but perversely, their portrait of fate as cruel and circular is what saves the film from the feel of a cheap laugh. These characters aren’t circus acts — just desperate messes, only human like the rest of us. Amid the American guignol, Campos finds actual pathos. It turns out Knockemstiff is not only real — once or twice in a lifetime, you might even find yourself living there.
On Netflix now