Jason Clarke and Riley Keough play serial killers in “The Devil All The Time.” (Netflix)

Jason Clarke and Riley Keough play serial killers in “The Devil All The Time.” (Netflix)

The wages of sin are bloody in this Southern Gothic yarn

“The Devil All the Time” follows venal, murderous characters in the hollers of southern Ohio.

  • Thursday, September 17, 2020 1:30am
  • Life

By Michael Phillips / Chicago Tribune

If you can get over the grisly familiarity of the material, and a convenient lack of moral complication surrounding the avenging angel played by Tom “Spider-Man” Holland, the Netflix feature “The Devil All the Time” is extremely well wrought. Not overwrought. Not underwrought. Just wrought.

It comes from a 2011 debut novel by Donald Ray Pollack, one that slips easily into the Southern Gothic or blood-in-the-holler categories. This time the South isn’t William Faulkner country. It’s southern Ohio, in the (real) town of Knockemstiff, and a rough patch of West Virginia. (The project was filmed in Alabama by cinematographer Lol Crawley on handsome, mellow 35 millimeter film.) In a shrewd decision, director and co-adapter Antonio Campos cast the novel’s author as the off-screen narrator. Pollack, who worked in a paper mill before resolving, successfully, to become a writer at age 50, brings a pleasing, smoky rasp of weary authority. He knows these venal, murderous, craven characters pretty well.

The story’s a 20-year welter of past and present bloodshed and depravity, covering World War II up through the appearance of a hippie in a VW bus in the final scene. Holland enters the story about a third off the way through. Orphaned at an early, grim age, his character, Arvin, has the inevitably bad luck to grow up in a town where the local preacher (Robert Pattinson giving his dialect coach a ton of … something) takes a greasy shine to Arvin’s stepsister (Eliza Scanlen).

Chugging along on narrative track No. 2, meanwhile, a serial-killing couple played by Jason Clarke and Riley Keough embark on frequent, corpse-strewn road trips. The Keough character’s brother (Sebastian Stan) is the politically ambitious Knockemstiff sheriff, treated like a lackey by the local crime bosses. As compressed (too tightly, I think) by cowriters Campos and Paulo Campos, “The Devil All the Time” wages Old Testament war between the much-abused pure of heart, and everybody else. There wouldn’t be much to it without its steady stream of feel-good, retributory whuppings.

It’s easy on the eyes, though, and it’s worth seeing for an intriguingly cast ensemble, authenticating the milieu as much as possible. Holland’s terrific, taking in each new setback in Arvin’s life without revealing the full extent of the damage. The actors come largely from England and Australia, but Campos has managed to get them all inside the same world. Well, maybe not Pattinson; I don’t really know what he’s doing here, besides taking a little too long with every line reading. But everyone else.

The musical score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans lays on the mournful, restrained lamentation even as the brains hit the window or the sharply edited blasts of gunfire tell us what we could guess from the title. The world is crummy and harsh, most people in it deserve what they get. “The Devil All the Time” echoes some of the despair and viscera of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men.” The evil that men do keeps the blood in the desert, the mean streets and the holler flowing all the time.

“The Devil All The Time” (3 stars)

There’s bloodshed and depravity galore in the hollers of south Ohio in this adaptation of Donald Ray Pollack’s 2011 debut novel, in which bad things happen to people who deserve them. The ensemble case includes Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson, who seems out of place.

Rating: R, for the works: violence, bloody and disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Streaming Friday: Netflix

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