During World War II, U.S. Marine Willard Russell finds a fellow soldier crucified by the Japanese. Slowly dying from torture and with no hope of survival, Willard shoots the crucified soldier to put him out of his misery. This sets in motion nearly everything that follows in The Devil All the Time, which offers a series of intertwined tales, all of people experiencing misery in one form or another, and all steeped in the Southern Gothic tradition.
Willard returns home after the war a different man. His mother, Emma, wants him to marry Helen, whose parents died in a house fire. Emma has promised God Willard would marry the girl if He let her son survive the war. Willard has no attraction to the devout Helen, he has his heart set on Charlotte, a waitress he briefly met on his return home. He goes back and properly introduces himself to Charlotte. They wed and quickly have a son, Arvin.
Seven years later, Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer. Medicine and prayers (and a desperate Willard’s sacrifice of his son’s dog) do not save her. Grief-stricken over the loss of his wife, Willard commits suicide. Arvin is then sent to live with his grandmother.
Also living with Emma is a little girl, Lenora Laferty. Years prior, Helen did have her sights set on Willard than he did her. The object of her affection was a visiting, zealous preacher named Roy Laferty. They married and had Lenora. Roy suffers a crisis of faith and discovers a new direction God wants him to go in besides drinking strychnine and pouring venomous spiders over his head. One afternoon they leave little Lenora with Emma and go for a drive from which neither Roy nor Helen return, although Helen’s body is found sometime later.
Arvin and Lenora are raised as step-brother and step-sister, but their bond goes as thick as blood. Arvin protects her from bullies at school and Lenora does her best to pray for her brother’s troubled soul.
Included in the story is a local sheriff whose prostitute sister is married to a serial killer who likes to photograph her with the dead bodies of the men they pick up and murder. There is also a preacher who preys on the young girls of the community, including the innocent Lenora.
One strand of story leads to the other to the other like a finely-knit sweater unraveling until it all comes full circle, and completely undone, by the end of the movie. This is a leisurely movie, meaning it unfolds of its own accord.
Robert Pattinson (a future Batman) plays the oily preacher; Tom Holland (a Spider-Man) is grown-up Arvin; Sebastian Stan (the Winter Soldier) plays the hooker’s cop-brother who also takes bribes from the local pimp. There are some big name people here (Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Bill Skarsgård, Mia Wasikowska), but it doesn’t feel like a big film. The stars all shine, but they do not distract from a well-made movie and well-told story.
The Devil All the Time is available on Netflix.