American Gothic: Netflix’s The Devil All the Time

by The Cowl Editor on October 15, 2020

Film and Television

How Two Small Towns Reveal  the Evil Capabilities of Man

by Madison Palmieri ’22 A&E Staff

One of the year’s most-anticipated films, The Devil All the Time, premiered in select theaters on Friday, Sept. 11 to positive reviews before debuting on Netflix the following Wednesday and reigning atop the streaming service’s Top 10 list.

The movie is based on the 2011 horror novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who narrates the film.

His words guide a dark, grotesque tale of the twisted, tormented souls who inhabit two southern-midwest towns in the post-World War II United States. The trials and tribulations of the Russell family intersect with the sadistic follies of a criminal couple, an unholy preacher, a crooked sheriff, and a host of other sinners. Any and all characters with any semblance of innocence are debased and sacrificed in a chilling portrait of human evil and religious hypocrisy.

Notably, the movie boasts an all-star cast: Tom Holland stars as the tragically corrupted Arvin Russell, Robert Pattinson plays the wickedly unpious Revered Preston Teagardin, Bill Skarsgård features as the maddened war veteran Willard Russell, Sebastian Stan stars as the cunning, vengeance-seeking Deputy Lee Bodecker, and Harry Melling plays the charismatic preacher-turned-madman Roy Laferty.

As the title implies, the film is largely concerned with the nature of sin and evil. However, its imagery is profoundly Christian, with a soundtrack of hymns, a plethora of pivotal scenes set in churches, and a recurring motif of the cross. Throughout the film, all of these elements are juxtaposed with some form of evil, whether it be in word or deed, to convey a deeply-rooted false piety and religious hypocrisy. Although not a new idea, the movie’s presentation of this theme is artistically rendered and thought-provoking.


However, the film is also quite intense and, at times, disturbing. Multiple characters are killed in dramatic fashion and some figures commit violent acts. Although included for dramatic effect and, perhaps, sheer shock value, they can be a bit too much for a viewer to handle, so it would be wise for those curious about the film to read warnings about potential triggers before viewing it.

The movie has received mostly positive ratings and reviews, although it does not appear to be the runaway hit that many viewers anticipated it would be. It received a 64% score from Rotten Tomatoes as well as a 54% score from Metacritic, in reviews that largely acknowledged cast members’ stellar performances, but criticized its thematic and character development.

For instance, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis referenced the title of a short story about the American South by Flannery O’Connor, observing that in the film, “little rises but everything must converge.” Dargis also made note of the lack of racial diversity in the movie, opining that the director, Antonio Campos, “is interested in Arvin’s world or, specifically, its cruelties, but he demonstrates no real curiosity about it or its inhabitants. . .as a result all of the pain and anguish, all the drama and generational trauma, is experienced only by white people, one of the few directorial choices here of actual note.”

Overall, The Devil All the Time is an intriguing thriller that may interest those fascinated by human nature or religious hypocrisy, but it is also an imperfectly-delivered tale with excessive and, at times, unnecessary horror and suffering.