This article contains The Devil All the Time spoilers. You can read the review here.
After so much bloodshed and tragedy, few could expect to find peace at the end of things. That includes Tom Holland’s taciturn Arvin Russell. Yet sitting in a Volkswagen next to a long-haired gentleman, one who appeared to be part of the vanguard for the next generation, the often hyper-observant Arvin is letting his guard down, and a sense of ease washes over him for the first time in probably his whole life. On the radio, President Lyndon B. Johnson is droning on about some type of troop build-up in Vietnam, but Arvin’s mind is on his past, and the bodies it left buried. Or perhaps it’s on his future too, as he mildly considers the prospect of joining the U.S. Army.
The truth is he doesn’t know. As author Donald Ray Pollock’s own voice narrates, “Grandma would tell him to pray on it, and he’d laugh at her, but maybe she knew something he didn’t? Right now he needed sleep and just felt lucky someone was giving him a ride.” This is a far cry from the Arvin who seemed to all but swear off religion after the horrors inflicted on him by his God-fearing father, as well as the young man who only days ago was able to deduce that smiling Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) was hiding a gun in his pocket. But here he is now, open to the first time since boyhood to the concept of God and the kindness of strangers.
Should his innocence be reborn, and is this a happy or dark ending? By design it’s left ambiguous. As director Antonio Campos told Esquire, “I always struggle with happy endings. I like endings that leave you with the hope for something better but the chance for something else and you have to kind of pick your own version of it.”
But if that is the case, allow us to dig a little deeper by picking our own destiny for Arvin after he falls asleep, dreaming both of a better life and the violence wrecked on him by his parents’ own traumas.
If there is a point to The Devil All The Time, it would be how the culture of a place, and the people who occupy it, predetermine for us the outcome we do not want. While the presence of God is a nebulous thing in this backyard fried noir, ‘the Devil’ of the title is present to just about every character inhabiting Pollock and Campos’ vision of Knockemstiff, Ohio* and its surrounding areas: It is the hell they make for themselves and their heirs by pretending to be better than they are while ignoring the pain underneath. Consider almost every narrative thread of The Devil All the Time ends in calamity for its protagonists, often after they delude themselves into thinking they’re making a noble gesture.
Take Holland’s Arvin. A quiet and skeptical boy after he saw his father’s piousness drive him to suicide, Arvin very much is the product of his father’s upbringing. His Dad Willard (Bill Skarsgård) came to this part of the world by accident. He was passing through after seeing the horrors of the South Pacific when he met the woman who would be Arvin’s mother, Charlotte (Haley Bennett). While the chance romance might have been coincidence, his fate was already sealed by what Arvin said was “the Devil all the time” in him. Arvin did not mean that his father was possessed by a supernatural spirit—Arvin is as close to an agnostic as we have in the plot. Rather there was something horrible eating at Willard’s mind from the war. And while Arvin never saw the flashback of the American G.I. Willard discovered crucified, we know this violence haunts Willard every time he stares at a cross.
For violence very much is the religion on which The Devil All the Time’s fatalism is built. Violence is the only thing Willard bequeaths his son. While Arvin as a boy is wary of praying before his father’s outdoor cross, he remembers well Willard’s lesson about beating the lecherous poachers they’d let escape after an earlier insult. Finding them scenes later and pummeling them to a pulp, Willard returns to his son and says, “You’ve just got to pick the right time.” This lesson of optimizing your anger and need to destroy was the happy part of Arvin’s childhood. The narration even confirms it was “the best day he ever spent with his father.”
That is all the more revealing when one realizes Arvin thinks this of the day he and Dada discover Mama has cancer. The slow-killing disease ruins what little innocence there is left in the lad. Before his mother is in the ground, Willard inflicts permanent psychic damage on Arvin by attempting to appease what he thinks must be an angry God via the ritualistic sacrifice of Arvin’s dog to their Maker. It doesn’t work, and after the mother is dead and buried, Willard soon follows her by his own hand.
Willard’s primitive reliance on violence as a form of salvation is of course backwoods craziness, but then everyone in this story believes violence will save them, and likely live to regret it in their dying breath. For if Arvin’s bitterness and irreligiosity was borne out of his father’s slaughtering of the family dog in the vain hope it would give him the power to save his mother, the piousness of his “sister” Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) is the fruit of similar delusions.
The reason Arvin and Lenora became orphans in the same house is because her Born Again preacher pappy, Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), was also blinded by his lunatic ideas. Roy killed Lenora’s mother Helen (Mia Wasikowska) in the woods, under the fallacy that God would grant him the powers to resurrect her. Instead he just murdered his wife and ran for the state line, escaping far enough to never be seen again, and allowing Lenora to grow up with her own eventually self-destructive delusions about her father and his faith not being so warped. Thus Lenora attempting to replace the hole left by the violent act of her father by believing the silver-tongued lies of another fire and brimstone orator (Robert Pattinson), who for all his zealotry really only liked his flock when they were young, childlike, and suggestible.
Pattinson’s Preston may be the evilest character in the story besides Clarke’s serial killer Carl. For these are the only two men who lack any self-doubts about their hypocrisies or cruelties. Willard took his own life after he discovered devotion conjured neither gods nor devils; Roy Laferty was wondering if he’d really fly to Heaven before his last breath. Both left broken legacies to their children. A man like Preston, however, only takes what he wants and cares about nothing else, including the girlhood of Roy’s underage daughter Lenora.
The resulting pregnancy leads to Lenora’s semi-suicide (again with the second-guessing at the last minute that no one will know about), and to Arvin committing his only premeditated murder in the movie. While he would kill again, as with how he handled the bullies who attacked Lenora earlier, Arvin has already taken his father’s lessons of violence to heart when he claims his other birthright, a German Luger his father bought off another G.I. from the war, and annihilates Preston in cold blood.
Later in the movie, we learn that copper Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) told Arvin as a child, “Some people were born just to be buried.” Whether this is the actual point-of-view of the movie is murky, but it’s an actual religious tenet Arvin can get behind, and the world of Knockemstiff quietly prays to.
Most of the characters of The Devil All the Time lead empty, fractured lives that they inherited from their folks. Lee Bodecker himself was saying this as a comfort to Arvin after the boy’s father committed suicide. Hence Lee recalling that he and his sister Sandy (Riley Keough) also grew up without a father since the old bastard abandoned them. The sentiment was meant to speak just of their fathers. Yet those traits seem inherited, with Lee becoming a corrupt lawman who commits and covers up murders as the years pass, and his blonde free-spirited sister falling in with her serial killer boyfriend, Carl.
The revelation late in the picture that Lee told Arvin some people exist to die creates a self-fulling prophecy to Arvin’s life. He is here to make good on that promise, as most of these broken people would be better off in the ground where they can’t hurt anyone. It begins with the calculated murder of the predatory Preston, but through a series of convoluted circumstances, he also winds up bumming a ride with Carl and Sandy, who’ve lived in their own separate little movie as mass murderers. The only killing we see in depth is how they slaughtered Lenora’s missing father, but they’ve been collecting “models” for 15 years by the time Arvin gets into their car.
Like their victim Roy Laferty, Sandy is having second thoughts about her life as a serial killer before she dies. She did it mostly just to please Carl. Years later though, she wanted out. She even daydreamed about running away with Arvin before the young man puts a bullet in her lover’s head. Soon she follows him across the bar, unaware the path she is on has been set for years—a cynic might say since the day her father walked out—and now all that’s left is the sudden surprise of oblivion.
And this brings us back to the ending where Arvin soon sends the man who told him some folks are just here to be buried to an early grave. He didn’t want to kill him, but Bodecker wanted revenge for his murderous sister. And after that showdown, all the people who an Old Testament God might say had it coming have met their fates. But Arvin doesn’t believe in God, per se, even if he returned to his childhood home to make peace with Him and the father who created a world in fear of spirits. Arvin buries the dog his father killed, plus the Luger, which is an obvious metaphor of him trying to bury the trauma his father imparted to him. With the dog given the rest he hoped his mother and father found, he’s free to leave this dark corner of America.
But is the rest of it any better? Sitting next to a proto-hippie as he falls asleep listening about escalation in Vietnam, Arvin can imagine a world where he breaks the cycle of violence he and everyone he knows lives on. He can find a girl and settle down without the trauma that manifested itself as the Devil in his papa. But he’s already embraced Willard’s inheritance for violence, hasn’t he? Sure, he buries Dad’s Luger in the final moments, but only after using it to kill four people, the first of which was not in self-defense.
And then there are his own second thoughts about trying to find a peaceful life. It’s troubling he entertains the idea of signing up for the Vietnam War while thinking of a better tomorrow. And then he is also considering that maybe his grandmother (and father) could be right about prayer. Even outside of Knockemstiff, he is still in a vision of America that is violent, circular, uncaring, and doomed to repeat the sins of its fathers. One war has ended but another is begun. The narrator even says Arvin “wasn’t sure if he was going backwards or forwards.” His end is his beginning.
As his father went to a war that defined him, Arvin is already on the path to repeat that horror. Hell, he’s already haunted by visions of ‘Devils’ and dead bodies he left to be buried. The greater devil is the culture Arvin’s in, and as teased by the prospect of the Vietnam War, that culture extends beyond Knockemstiff’s town limits or that of its neighbors. It’s the American legacy and a predilection toward violence The Devil All the Time seems to suggest is inescapable. Arvin can have hesitations and hopes, but like those experienced by Sandy before he shot her, or Roy before her lover shot him, or Roy’s daughter Lenora before the rope around her neck tightened, they’re just illusions of escape. And the end of the line is fast approaching.
*An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Knockemstiff as a fictional town.