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Literature / The Devil All the Time

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"What I'm about to do, I do because I have to. Not because I want to."
"Now, if you asked most people where Knockemstiff, Ohio, or Coal Creek, West Virginia were, they probably couldn’t point them out to you on a map. But I guarantee, they’d be there all the same. How and why so many people from those two piddling places on that map could end up connected has a lot to do with our story. Some would claim it was just dumb luck, while others might swear it was God’s intention. But I’d say with the way things turned out, it was a little bit of both."
The Narrator

Donald Ray Pollock's 2011 novel set in the 1950s and 1960s Midwest. Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, The Devil All the Time follows a cast of compelling and bizarre characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s. There’s Willard Russell, tormented veteran of the carnage in the South Pacific, who can’t save his beautiful wife, Charlotte, from an agonizing death by cancer no matter how much sacrifi­cial blood he pours on his “prayer log.” There’s Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband-and-wife team of serial kill­ers, who trawl America’s highways searching for suitable models to photograph and exterminate. There’s the spider-handling preacher Roy and his crippled virtuoso-guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore, running from the law. And caught in the middle of all this is Arvin Eugene Russell, Willard and Charlotte’s orphaned son, who grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right.

A film adaptation was released on Netflix on 16th September 2020. It stars Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, Sebastian Stan and Robert Pattinson.

The Devil All the Time contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Willard after he sacrifices Arvin's dog to God to save his wife from cancer.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Preston Teagardin in the book is overweight and not particularly attractive, a far cry from Robert Pattinson in the film. Sandy also qualifies, to a lesser extent- in the book, her teeth are rotting by the end of the book. Helen and Lenora are also said to be "horse-faced".
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: In the book, Theodore manipulates Roy into killing Helen, while Roy does so on his own in the film.
  • Advertised Extra: Mia Wasikowska is only in the film for five minutes or so.
  • All There in the Manual: The book explains how Carl and Sandy started killing hitchhikers in the first place.
  • Anyone Can Die Characters are killed left and right in this movie and by the end of the film the only primary characters still alive are Arvin, his grandmother, and uncle.
  • Asshole Victim: Arvin kills in order: A scumbag "Preacher" who drove his sister to suicide, a sadistic serial killer, his willing accomplice and a corrupt cop who's been working for the mob for years. It's pretty clear we're not meant to sympathize with them.
  • Ax-Crazy: There are several characters who are violently insane.
    • Carl is a deeply depraved and sadistic murderer who gets off on raping and torturing his victims before they die.
    • Roy is an unstable religious fanatic who pours spiders on himself to prove his faith in God and later kills his wife because he believes that he can bring her back to life.
    • Downplayed with Willard, who's become significantly more violent and short tempered after the war but not exactly insane. Though he later crucifies Arvin's dog (in the film; in the book he also kills several other animals and one person) because he believes it will save his wife.
    • Sheriff Bodecker descends into madness near the end of the film, randomly firing his shotgun and screaming out loud, desperate to kill Arvin.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: Subverted. Sandy points her gun at Arvin, who points his gun at Sandy, and we hear a gunshot — they shot each other at the same time, but only his gun was properly loaded.
  • Big Brother Instinct:
    • Arvin is extremely protective of Lenora, tracking down and beating up a group of teens who bullied her. Later on, when he deduces that Teagardin is responsible for her suicide, he kills him in revenge.
    • Downplayed with Sheriff Lee Bodecker. While he does care for his sister, much of his actions he does for her are done to cover his own ass for re-election. That said, he is saddened by her death and tries to avenge her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Arvin kills Preston, Carl, Sandy, and Lee, but he's very much left miserable at the end and runs off to Cincinnati.
  • Boom, Headshot! Carl kills Roy this way.
    • Arvin finally kills Reverend Preston after shooting him in the head.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Luger pistol that Willard owns and is given to his son Arvin in the early section of the movie is used when Arvin kills Reverend Preston, Carl, Sandy and Lee at the end of the film.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Most of Roy and Theodore’s storyline is cut out from the film.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The fact that both Roy and Arvin would happen to run into the same pair of serial killers after going on the run from killing someone in West Virginia, almost 7 years apart. Or that one of those serial killers would happen to be the sister of the cop who dealt with Arvin after his father's suicide. This is lampshaded in the quote above.
  • Cool Gun: Willard's souvenir gun from his time in the war, a P08 Luger in 9mm, to his father. After Willard's suicide, Arvin's grandfather gifts him the pistol to remember his father. The distinctive nature of the Luger and the rarity of 9mm ammunition amongst civilians at the time is what helps Sheriff Lee Bodecker pinpoint who killed Preston Teagardin, his sister Sandy, and her husband.
  • Crapsack World: Carl and Sandy are murderers, Willard is a religious fanatic, his wife Charlotte is dying; everywhere we see deprived, poor, and murderous people. At one point Cincinnati comes to represent the possibility of a better place, but we don't get to find out if it really is any better.
  • Creator Cameo: Donald Ray Pollock is the voice of the narrator in the film.
  • Demoted to Extra: Roy is present throughout most of the book with his death occurring near the end at the point when the storylines start to converge. In the film, he dies soon after his introduction.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The film follows Willard for the first 40 minutes or so and then he kills himself out of grief after his wife dies. Arvin then becomes the film's true protagonist afterwards.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Both Willard and Arvin fought "the Devil all the time" considering their penchant for violence and the need to fight someone.
  • Driven to Suicide: Willard and later Lenora both commit suicide. Well, technically Lenora doesn't — she changed her mind at the last minute, but unfortunately ended up dying anyway.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Preacher Teagardin's first act in the film is to deliver a not-so-subtle Stealth Insult to Arvin's grandmother. He's a gigantic, holier-than-thou asshole.
  • Evil Is Petty: The first sign we get that Preacher Teagardin is a villain is when he refuses to eat, and then publicly insults, Emma's fried chicken liver dish in front of the entire congregation.
  • Face Death with Dignity: After killing his wife, Roy accepts his upcoming fate at the hands of Carl and Sandy.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Carl lures his hitchhiking victims into his car by acting friendly and helpful. Preacher Teagardin masks his sexual depravity behind a thin veil of folksy politeness and righteousness though it doesn't really work and he comes off as more a condescending Jerkass than anything else.
  • For the Evulz: Carl enjoys killing people and taking photos of his crimes.
  • Gaslighting: Teagardin tells Lenora he can't have knocked her up by praising the Lord with her, and besides, some poor illiterate people convince themselves they have had sex with Ava Gardner.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Sandy seriously considers killing Carl and taking off with Arvin near the end. Arvin kills Carl and her before she can do anything about it.
  • Hollywood Blanks: Sandy's gunshot at Arvin's chest from a couple feet away does no damage whatever.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: The pastor who speaks in the beginning, Roy, swears that not even Hitler could come up with something bad enough to even compare with Satan's punishment for sinners. Then he goes on to say that his childhood arachnophobia and the accompanying nightmares — that's what Hell is like.
  • It Gets Easier: Carl looks mildly uncomfortable while killing his second victim, who is calmly accepting his death. By his 14th victim, he's totally fine with brutally torturing his victim by shooting his balls off and ignores his begging and pleading while taking pictures. Inverted with Sandy, who is turned on by it in the beginning, but disgusted and horrified near the end and looks away.
  • Kick the Dog: A almost literal example, Willard kills Arvin's dog in a desperate attempt to save his wife's life by offering God a sacrifice.
    • Reverend Preston Teagardin character has many of these moments such as him insulting Arvins grandmother's food and blaming Leonora for the pregnency.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After Roy kills Helen he almost immediately hitches a ride with a couple of serial killers. It ends the way you'd expect it to.
  • Legacy Character: Arvin is Willard and Charlotte's son. As well as Lenora, daughter of Helen and Roy. It's even mentioned that both kids inherit traits from one of their parents.
  • Lighter and Softer: The film tones down much of the violence. In the book, for example, Willard kills several animals and one person as sacrifices to God to save his wife. By the end, the entire area is soaked with blood. In the film, he ‘just’ kills the dog.
  • Mercy Kill: During the war, Willard comes across a soldier that had been skinned alive and crucified. Willard puts him out of his misery.
  • Mistaken for Suicidal: Lenora. She intends to hang herself, but thinks better of it at the last second — but at that point, the noose is already around her neck, and she is standing on a bucket, which is a precarious position to find yourself in. So when they find her, they naturally believe it was suicide, but the narrator assures us that the Lord knew better.
  • Morality Chain: Lenora is this to Arvin. While he doesn't exactly turn evil, he murders Preacher Teagardin shortly after and ends up killing three more people in self-defence.
  • Morning Sickness: After Lenora tells Teagardin that she is with child, she throws up in the morning and almost skips church.
  • Never My Fault: During Arvins confrontation with him, Reverend Preston Teagardin refuses to admit any involvement or blame for what happen to Leonora.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Arvin delivers a brutal one to each of the three guys who bullied Leonora.
  • Pedophile Priest: Reverend Preston Teagardin is a hebephile who ends up seducing 15-year-old Lenora and knocking her up. Once he's driven her to suicide, he takes up with another girl about her age, who looks similar.
  • Precision F-Strike: The Narrator sometimes uses vulgarly in his narration. He calls Carl a "sick fuck" and uses other fucks in his narration.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Willard kills his son's dog as a sacrifice to God as a desperate means to save his wife (who is dying of cancer). It doesn't work.
    • Roy Laferty kills Helen under the assumption that he can bring her back. This of course does not happen.
  • Sinister Minister: Both Coal Creek church reverends:
    • Roy Laferty murders his wife Helen in a fit of madness.
    • Preston Teagardin is a preacher as well as a sexual predator.
  • Stealth Insult: Preacher Teagardin stands before the church congregation and delivers a short sermon, saying that whoever brought the dish of chicken livers "in the cracked platter" to the potluck is obviously too poor to afford better fare, so he'll eat the dish as a Christian sacrifice. The Russell family can only silently seethe at the not-so-subtle insult.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Don't you hate it when your mother gets cancer and your violent father kills your dog, skins it and crucifies it above his "prayer log" as a sacrifice, which doesn't work and your mother dies and your father cuts his own throat directly under the corpse of your dog and your adopted sister gets Driven to Suicide by a corrupt preacher, so you snap and kill the preacher, flee the town but your car breaks down and you hitch a ride with a nice couple of Serial Killers whom you only barely escape from with your life, then finally return to your burned-down childhood home to bury the remains of your dog, only for a corrupt shotgun-wielding sheriff to turn up out of nowhere to murder you? And that's only in the film. The book is worse.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the film, Theodore is not seen again after Roy abandons him in the car to join the Hendersons. In the book, he had already died.

"But he was good at fighting. Maybe that's where he belonged."

Alternative Title(s): The Devil All The Time