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Image Credit: 

above: Robert Pattinson in The Devil All The Time (2020)

In the Dark

The Devil's Collectives

The Devil All the Time

Directed by Antonio Campos ◆ Written by Paulo Campos ◆ Produced by Nine Stories Productions and Bronx Moving Co. ◆ Distributed by Netflix


1BR

Directed and written by David Marmor ◆ Produced by Malevolent Films ◆ Distributed by Dark Sky Films

 


The Prowler (1951)

Directed by Joseph Losey ◆ Written by Dalton Trumbo ◆ Produced by Horizon Pictures ◆ Distributed by United Artists

 


Antonio Campos’ adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel The Devil All the Time (2011) is unfortunately faithful to the text. That is too bad, as Pollock’s work might have benefitted from a thorough bowdlerization. It’s seamy beyond belief.

What’s more, the film’s narrative construction could hardly be more awkward. It is full of flash-forwards and -backwards signaled via datelines displayed on the screen. Good luck keeping track of the chronology; you’ll be too busy trying to follow simultaneous plot lines. I confess I found it bewildering.

After watching the film twice, I resolved to read the novel for clarification, only to discover that the story is almost as confusing on the page. I wouldn’t have thought it worth the effort to sort out its labyrinthine contortions, but then I remembered that’s my job. I once had an editor who chided me when I asked for raise. My reviewing chores, he said, were hardly onerous. Films like this one force me to disagree.

The story of Devil All the Time concerns some cretinous backwoods characters living in Knockemstiff, Ohio between 1945 and 1965, who take pleasure in killing and raping one another when they’re not tearfully calling upon Jesus to save them. With the exception of the protagonist and possibly one or two others, there’s no one here worth saving.

Knockemstiff, by the way, is a real township. It’s Pollock’s birthplace and he still lives there. Whether legend or fact, the place got its name from an incident in which two women were fighting over a man and one knocked the other stiff. Hardly a promising heritage.

At the outset, protagonist Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) has just returned from a World War II tour of duty in the Solomon Islands. There he encountered some of the horrors of war, one of which caused him to lose whatever faith he once had. On a patrol, he and his platoon came upon a G.I. skinned and crucified by the Japanese, but still alive. The man’s hands had been nailed to an improvised crossbeam. His body crawled with ants. He had just enough energy to shout wretchedly as death approached. Willard, not knowing what else to do, shot the fellow as an act of desperate mercy.

This is our introduction to the film’s physical and moral ugliness. A narrative is free to represent the world’s horrors, but should do so with honesty and moral purpose. Great writers have done this in exemplary fashion throughout history. Harrowing scenes from the Illiad and the Old Testament were recited on celebratory occasions to remind listeners of the challenges with which their ancestors once had to contend.

I’m not convinced Pollock is working in this tradition. His novel’s content is brutal and disgusting. What’s more, his narrative both on the page and in film is laid out with a tortured complexity that rivals Joseph Conrad at his most convoluted. For what purpose? I can’t say. The novel, Pollock has said, is autobiographical. In writing it he claims he was doing nothing more than reporting what he saw and experienced, intensifying his personal past to shape his fiction.

But it doesn’t seem to me he has transformed his material into anything that could be called art. It’s just one damned thing after another. And I mean damned. Before we get very far into the story, Willard’s wife is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. His response is to beseech if not demand that Jesus save her. He enlists his 10-year-old son Arvin to pray with him, interrupting his pleading occasionally to strike the boy whenever Arvin’s concentration wavers. Of course, this doesn’t encourage his son to feel a genuinely religious response to grief.

For more horrors, we have a preacher who uses his position in the community to take advantage of adolescent girls every time he gets the opportunity which is pretty much daily. When one girl becomes pregnant, he assures her that he’s not responsible. Then there’s a homicidal couple who travel the country roads prowling for young men. The woman has sex with them while the man takes photos of the encounters after which they shoot their hapless victims. Why? Who knows?

What these eccentricities, shall we say, add up to is anybody’s guess. Maybe Pollock’s intention is to embrace nihilism as the only honest response to life. When things become as horrible as he depicts, what’s the point of sustaining belief in justice, mercy, and redemption?

Pollock is an author who has embraced the code of Flannery O’Connor’s character the Misfit in her terrifying short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But the Misfit at least holds out a vanishing hope that Jesus may show up one day. Pollock mocks any such hope.

David Marmour’s horror film 1BR also has its quota of crazies and ghouls, but this devilish picture also has a theme it honors in almost every frame: the consequences of social regimentation.

1220-MALEVOLENCE-2_copyThese consequences are visited painfully on Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) who has come to Los Angeles in search of a job in the film industry. She wants to design dresses for film actresses. Once a studio hires her, she looks for an apartment. She finds one on a street just under the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee and is quite pleased with her luck. Not only is the apartment clean and spacious, the building’s other tenants are friendly and welcoming.

But something’s off. The residents are a tad too eager to help her move in. One of them offers her a book entitled The Power of Community, which she doesn’t accept at first. She’s come to the city to assert her independence by breaking away from her family, especially her overbearing father. This book is not for her. It celebrates togetherness and mutual support.

She doesn’t realize it at first, but her new neighbors are dedicated to collective living and they’re determined to have her join them. When she shows signs of resisting their appeal, the tenants apply a program of persuasion, gently at first but turning ever more brutal as Sara continues to insist on her individuality. The other tenants insist that she live in accord with four principles articulated in their Orwellian “bible” The Power of Community: selflessness, openness, acceptance, and security. She’s stepped into what amounts to a cult, with a reeducation camp that enforces conformity or else.

The “or else” includes some violent measures, so consider yourself warned. If you’re likely to be sickened by close-ups of hands being nailed to a wall, or by an ice pick wielded to clean out an ear or puncture a valiant, freedom-loving chest, you may want to close your eyes occasionally. Of course, you could forego the film altogether.

However taking this last option would be a mistake. 1BR offers a provocative political analysis of speech codes, groupthink, and intolerance of any deviation from the now regnant political program. In other words, the very things we’re seeing on our streets today. We live in a time when saying anything critical of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) or LGBTQ agendas leads to an indictment for violating the current orthodoxy. This is why 1BR comes as a hopeful sign. It proclaims that it is still possible to hold ideas other than those officially prescribed.

A recent example comes from an unexpected source. When a television reporter asked Denzel Washington if he thought BLM or LGBT agendas were helping race relations, he replied that such relations can’t be legislated. In a free society such as ours, he went on, governments and organizations cannot order us to like one another. Individuals have to exercise their own judgment and goodwill in these matters. Of course, many others have said the same thing, but I thought it telling that a black celebrity had the temerity to express this currently unfashionable truth.

1220-MALEVOLENCE-1_copyPathological attempts to get one’s way no matter the consequences provides the narrative skein of The Prowler (1951), director Joseph Losey’s police procedural with a pitch-black noir twist. It recounts a version of the familiar Agamemnon story: a younger man plots against an older one to take away his woman by force. It’s the setup of many fictions. The one that most immediately comes to mind being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).

In both of these tales the women are wealthy as well as beautiful. This served Losey’s communist purpose to portray passion turned murderous in a capitalist world unable to distinguish between lust and greed. Van Heflin stars as a vicious cop who seizes the opportunity to kill a man so he can acquire his wife (Evelyn Keyes) and her wealth. Whatever one thinks of Losey’s ideology, he made a starkly forceful film about corrupted longing. All the actors are persuasive, especially Heflin. For her part, Keyes conveys dramatically the affecting innocence of a woman foolish enough to be taken in by such a thoroughly treacherous man.                               

George McCartney

George McCartney

George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).

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