Spoiler alert: This story delves into the ending of “The Devil All The Time.” If you haven’t seen the Netflix drama, stop reading.
Lordie, lordie. “The Devil All the Time” puts viewers through the emotional wringer for 2 hours and 18 minutes with its all-star cast — Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska and Riley Keough.
Heartbreaking characters are killed off with “Game of Thrones” impunity in the Midwestern Gothic drama, as sinister, powerful men (and men of God) wreak havoc on decent people.
The loss got so heavy for me, that in the final, fretful moments before the conclusion, I spoke from my couch to whatever powerful deity rules this Earth — seeking to spare Holland’s troubled Arvin Russell.
“Surely, amid all this movie heartache, pain and death, haven’t we earned something of a happy ending?” I beseeched.
Just to make sure my prayer was answered, because the ending was subtle, I spoke to director Antonio Campos, who co-wrote the screenplay from the original novel.
This is really the time you stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie.
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Campos told me emphatically that the final moments veer toward hope for Arvin.
“It’s not a happy ending,” he says. “But I want you to feel like there’s the potential for a happy ending.”
Condensed despair recap: Holland’s Arvin and his troubled life are the scar tissue-covered beating heart in this epic tale. As a child, his mother (Haley Bennett) dies of cancer. His distraught World War II veteran father, Willard (Bill Skarsgård), kills Arvin’s dog, Jack, as a sacrifice to save his wife, and then kills himself after his wife’s funeral.
Arvin moves in with his grandparents, briefly content, until his beloved sibling Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) gets pregnant with sleazy preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) and accidentally kills herself when he denies being the father. Arvin seeks revenge, killing Teagardin with his father’s Luger. He flees, catching a ride with serial killer Carl (Jason Clarke) and Carl’s unwitting victim, siren Sandy (Riley Keough).
Arvin ends up shooting both in self defense, continuing his flight with the quest of setting his troubled past to rest. He heads to his childhood home, intending to finally give his beloved dog the burial the onetime companion deserves.
Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) tracks Arvin there to seek his own revenge for his sister Sandy’s death. Arvin is compelled to kill Bodecker, literally shooting the sheriff. He buries the Luger with his dog’s bones.
“Arvin hadn’t planned on leaving the gun behind, but after the final shoot-out with Bodecker, he fully comprehends the danger of this thing he’s inherited from his father and that he needs to get rid of it,” says Campos. “By burying the bones of his dog, Jack, and his father’s gun, he’s ready to put to rest the anger he’s held toward his father, and the violence he’s inherited from him as well.”
Arvin catches a final hitchhike ride. In a movie where hitching proves perilous, entering another stranger’s car makes for nerve-wracking viewing for anyone with a soul invested in Arvin’s plight. He’s exhausted and fights to stay awake while the radio broadcasts reports about Lyndon Johnson escalating Vietnam troop levels.
But this time, the driver is a hippie in a VW van, not a serial killer.
“So that’s a suggestion of a new era on the horizon,” says Campos. “It’s not Carl and Sandy. It’s this guy who doesn’t really know where he’s going, probably just smoked a joint. Arvin is about to leave this little bubble that he’s been in and maybe experience something different.”
The ending passage, spoken by the story’s narrator, lets us in on weary Arvin’s mindset as he fitfully nods off:
“Then the thought of enlisting got into his brain and he wasn’t sure if he was thinking about himself or Willard anymore. He didn’t want to end up in a war like his father. But he was good at fighting. And maybe that’s where he belonged. His grandma would tell him to pray on it and he’d laugh at her. But maybe she knew something he didn’t. Right now, he needed sleep, and he just felt lucky someone was giving him a ride.”
Campos says the character is at a crossroads, but that’s progress. One path is going to Vietnam, even after seeing what World War II did to his survivor father. The scene also flashes to glimpses of a grown Arvin with a happy family.
He might make life choices that could end the story’s cycle of tragedy.
“Hopefully when this kid who has been through all of this madness wakes up from this rest, he might go down a road that his father didn’t, or couldn’t have gone down when he was that age,” says Campos. “So I want you to feel that hope at the end.”
For a sometime tragic movie like “The Devil All the Time,” that’s everything.