Knockemstiff. A small town in rural Ohio, home to just under 60,000 residents. The name sounds made up – right? A name perfect for a town filled with dark secrets.
Well, that’s exactly what writer Donald Ray Pollock thought when he decided to publish his fictional novel ‘The Devil All the Time’ back in 2011. He made the decision that the perfect setting for his Post-World War 2 novel would be in his hometown – Knockemstiff, Ohio.
Rumours are still floating around on how the town actually made its name, some pointing towards stories of an old preacher encountering a bar fight over one-hundred years ago and somewhere in the conversation landed the words “knock him stiff”. Nine years later and Pollock’s violent fictional piece on religious uncertainty has made it’s screen debut on Netflix, but it seems despite the star-studded cast and expertly crafted skin-crawling trailer – it feels like it was missing something.
Tom Holland plays Arvin, orphaned at a young age after the tragic death of both his parents only weeks a part, he is constantly reminded of them no matter where he goes. His father, played by Bill Skarsgård, teaches Arvin shortly before his death about the importance of finishing things – that if someone was to hurt you, you make sure you hurt them twice as much. This thought arises in his head years down the line when we run into a mouthy preacher named Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) whose dress sense matches his quick whit and sinner-bashing attitude.
Arvin’s thoughts on the Preacher are sour at first sight as Teagardin shames Arvin’s grandmothers cooking skills at the cookout, and it only goes downhill from there once his step-sister Lenora comes into the picture.
Arvin’s path also soon crosses with a hitch-hiking couple who seem all too confident with his presence, but we as an audience already know that their confidence is not to be trusted. The list of characters seems to go on for the length of the film and it isn’t until the last quarter that we understand that everyone is connected through one coincidence or another.
As the film carries on, so does the feeling of unease as a whole new set of tragedies unravel. Steering away from the near perfect casting, it takes around forty-minutes for us to see Arvin in his teenager years, but when we do, the movie ramps up a notch and has us sitting on the edge of our seats.
Dark secrets begin to unwind and misery begins to strike those who are having an inner battle with themselves and their religious beliefs, and it feels like it is a never ending downwards spiral as we patiently wait for the next ascent on this soul-stirring rollercoaster ride. But it never comes, and perhaps that is the point. Arvin’s life is laced in misery and it appears to have no fairy-tale ending, violence follows him everywhere as his own fathers nature is imbedded in him.
Pollock himself adds an extra twist to the film as the narrator, but it falls short of giving us an in-depth look into the characters and their relationships. It seems whenever we think we are about to see a proper one-to-one conversation for some added character development, it turns into a squabble of fisticuffs and gunshots – it’s as if ‘The Devil All the Time’ is a little more of a voyeuristic experiment rather than the mystery flick it set out to be.
The film also falls short on the potential it had for gruesome and unsettling imagery, as no matter how many times you pause you can’t seem to fit everything that is perfect into one frame.
Despite these drawbacks, ‘The Devil All The Time’ still has the potential to be one of the 2020 greats. The masterful acting that has you shifting in your seat gives this film more than worth a watch, plus Robert Pattinson’s insane Southern drawl will give you a giggle or two before you get used to it.
The non-stop ferocity keeps you tied in as you anticipate who faces their fate next, and with a two hour run-time, you start to ask yourself when it will all be over for Arvin.
Feature image credit: Netflix