The twisted horror of the American South

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Knockemstiff and the surrounding environs are peopled by delusional religious fanatics, twisted preachers, corrupt lawmen, and truckstop sex killers. Getting out of this film alive is what you might call a challenge. It features strong performances from a bevy of actors, most memorably Robert Pattinson as a paedophilic evangelical priest. Tom Holland, too, stands out, finding within his familiar boyish innocence the ability to emit a blank-eyed propensity for vengeance. The Devil All the Time is an uncompromising, nasty ensemble piece. Curiously, though, the tone of Campos’s film is sedate, even while the content is incredibly lurid.

This distinguishes the film from many recent cinematic entries of a similar vein; others, like Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) and William Friedkin’s grease-smeared Killer Joe (2011) lean into a more knowingly absurd, borderline-camp tone. Not so for The Devil All the Time, which encases its grotesquerie in a certain self-seriousness. The author himself, Donald Ray Pollock, provides the twangy, omniscient voiceover in the movie, sometimes overstating what we can already see onscreen, but also giving a chillingly matter-of-fact account of events. This makes the film fit well into the more literary pedigree of Southern Gothic, which began as a subgenre of early 20th-Century US literature. In fact, when the term was coined in the 1930s by a literary critic to describe a new crop of authors, the writing was often so grotesque that ‘Southern Gothic’ wasn’t seen as a positive term.

Horror rooted in reality

It was a style which saw authors like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor borrow tropes from the Gothic horror tradition of imperilled women, dysfunctional family dynamics, and domesticity turned deranged. They would then translate these on to their own upbringings, in order to deal with the festering wounds of the Deep South and its bloody legacy of chattel slavery. Although The Devil All the Time is not, strictly speaking, set in the Deep South – existing as it is on the border between Ohio and West Virginia – its vernacular is all Southern Gothic in tone, and its crisscrossing of the state line sees it dip from Union to Confederate territory in terms of each state’s history. 

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