Religious fanatics and the women who love them: That might be one way to describe the sinful goings on in "The Devil All the Time." You were maybe expecting something more comic bookish for a Netflix movie that unites Spider-man Tom Holland and new Batman Robert Pattinson, but this gothic thriller, set in the Appalachian backwoods of Ohio and West Virginia between World War II and the Vietnam era, prides itself on springing surprises.
Based on the acclaimed 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who narrates the film in a darkly funny drawl, "The Devil All the Time" pushes wickedness to savage extremes. Directed in a fever by Antonio Campos ("Christine," "Simon Killer") from a hellzapoppin script he wrote with his brother Paulo, the film examines what happens when genuine faith is corrupted by fanaticism. It's not pretty.
Holland excels as Arvin Russell, a decent boy haunted by his brutal past. In flashbacks, young Arvin is shown dealing with his PTSD-afflicted father, Willard, played by Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise the psycho clown in "It"). War has damaged Willard, but not as much as the cancer that's killing his adored wife (Haley Bennett). She's as confused as Arvin over why dad thinks it will help if he sacrifices the family dog on a makeshift altar he's built out back.
Things get marginally better as Arvin is sent to live with grandma Emma (Kristin Griffith), who is so goodhearted she's also taken in Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), whose crazy preacher father (Henry Melling) made life hell for her late mother (Mia Wasikowska). Such shared tragedy results in a bond forming between Arvin and Lenora. When bullies torment the girl Arvin considers his sister, he uses his fists to exact justice.
Even Arvin can't save Lenora from the toxic charms of the Rev. Preston Teagardin (Pattinson) for whom underage womanhood is a temptation he can't resist. Pattinson hasn't looked this vampire-pale since "Twilight," and he's clearly studied Robert Mitchum: the ultimate bad preacher in 1955's iconic "Night of the Hunter." Wearing ruffled shirts and preaching hellfire for everyone but him, Pattinson offers a gripping portrait of honey-dipped depravity.
"The Devil All the Time" errs by stuffing almost every subplot from the book into a movie that's already groaning from a case of too-muchness. Arvin's revenge on the reverend puts him in conflict with the sheriff (Sebastian Stan) and a pair of traveling serial killers, Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough). Keough, the eldest grandchild of Elvis and Priscilla Presley, is such an exciting actress that you wish the film had spent more time on her story. Sandy also ties Arvin and Lenora together across a generational divide that only becomes clear by the film's end. The catharsis should hit harder than it does, but in detailing a world that twists the concepts of good and evil into tools for exploitation, "The Devil All the Time" deserves points for seeing Arvin as a soul worth saving.