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Indie Focus: Sin and redemption in ‘The Devil All the Time’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The fall festival season continues, even in the unconventional form of this year. Off the Toronto Film Festival, Justin Chang wrote about two of its breakout hits, “Nomadland” and “Ammonite.” Writer-director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, stars Frances McDormand as a modern-day nomad travelling the Southwest alone in a van.

“It’s a refinement for its star, who slips into this role in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do onscreen,” Justin wrote. “That’s not to say McDormand vanishes, exactly; actors with as distinctive and commanding a presence as hers rarely do. But without suppressing her natural instincts as a performer — including a gift for spitfire comedy that occasionally rears its head — she whispers rather than declaims and illuminates more from within than without. It’s one of her greatest performances.”

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I spoke to Francis Lee, writer-director of “Ammonite,” in which Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan play two women who unexpectedly fall into a passionate affair in mid-1880s England, in an on-screen pairing of two of the most celebrated actresses of the era. “I think they complement each other perfectly,” Lee said. “What was so great about working with them is that I like emotion that’s very internalized rather than front-footed, and it was great to see them both work in that sphere of internalized emotion and holding on to so much.”

Justin also wrote about the opening of the New York Film Festival, which began with the world premiere of Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock,” the first installment of an anthology series and the story of a party one night in the 1980s. The film, Justin wrote, “isn’t devoid of pain; there are brief altercations, tense encounters and a few sharp reminders of white hostility hovering at the edges of this Black refuge. But this is the first of McQueen’s films, including his terrific 2018 heist thriller, ‘Widows,’ that wholly and unambiguously pulses with pleasure. It’s a delight to see the director cut loose.”

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‘The Devil All the Time’

“The Devil All the Time” is an adaptation of the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock directed and co-written by Antonio Campos. With a sprawling cast that includes Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, Sebastian Stan, Bill Skarsgård, Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, the film shifts between Ohio and West Virginia in a dense tale of wickedness and redemption that spans the 1940s to the 1960s. The film is streaming on Netflix.

I recently spoke to Campos in conversation with Sean Durkin, his former creative collaborator and director of another of this week’s titles, “The Nest.” (That story will be publishing soon.) As Campos said, “I had never read anything that had blended Southern Gothic and hard-boiled fiction in the way that I experienced in that book. [Pollock] kind of found this cool intersection between Flannery O’Connor and Jim Thompson, who are two of my favorite writers … I really loved that at its core it’s a generational story; it’s a story about this trauma that the father goes through that then gets passed on to his son, and his son has to deal with that.”

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The sins of the fathers are passed down with both a solemn hand and a diabolical chuckle in ‘The Devil All the Time,’ a viciously coiled study in the banality of evil, the abuse of power and the diminishing returns of screen violence … You might say that sin is the movie’s true star: A cop serves his greed, a preacher indulges his lust and a young man unleashes his wrath. I’m not sure how to classify the gun-toting creep with the cuckold fetish, except to note that is less an outlier than a standard bearer, the nastiest distillation of this movie’s relentlessly nasty worldview.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “No one is up to any good in ‘Devil,’ a leisurely wallow in the kind of flamboyant evil that some filmmakers just can’t quit, won’t quit. [Pattinson’s] preacher, Rev. Preston Teagardin, is the least of this story’s ills. By the time he does his worst, knuckles have been bloodied, bullets fired, a dog sacrificed and a man tortured, to list just some of this potboiler’s horrors, which also include a pair of industrious serial killers. Here, in a swath of Appalachia that stretches from Ohio to West Virginia — a land of green woods, white people and Gothic clichés — little rises but everything must converge.”

For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote, “‘The Devil All the Time’ is somehow far better at setting the stage for its story than it is at airing out all the interesting nooks and grabbing hold of its clear potential, perhaps because there’s so much to grab … [Campos’] film is overly steeped in a well-trod, grim sense of heartland mythology — not inappropriately, given the film’s subject and setting. Muscular, masculine, post-war crime narratives like this are, after all, an essential ingredient of American folklore, material that often has the makings of well-made entertainment. This is a fact which ‘Devil’, with its wide, textured, 35mm images, is only too aware of. By the end of the movie, so are we.”

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For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh addressed the narration by the novel’s author when she wrote, “Campos lets Pollock do the talking, and his cinematic storytelling follows suit. Pollock’s conversational style mimics oral storytelling and small-town gossip, jumping forward in time, flashing back seven years or three months, giving away the ending before the story’s been told. Campos follows this rhythm, finding a mesmerizing and foreboding flow, aided in part by an uneasy, anticipatory score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s a tightly wound, messy, moody odyssey into the heart of humanity’s darkness, with Pollock leading the way.”

Tom Holland in the movie "The Devil All the Time."
(Glen Wilson/Netflix)

‘The Nest’

Filmmaker Sean Durkin, who debuted with “Martha Marcy May Marlene” in 2011, at last follows up with a new feature in the tense and unsettling family drama “The Nest.” In the film Jude Law and Carrie Coon give deeply felt performances as a couple in the 1980s who have moved to London from the U.S. Soon his financial recklessness pushes all the strains of their marriage to the breaking point. Released by IFC Films, the movie is at drive-ins in Los Angeles and in general release where theaters are open.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Although it flirts with the conventions of cinematic horror, ‘The Nest’ is a drier, subtler exercise in creeping dread. Its refusal to give concrete definition to the menace at hand, which will surely be a source of frustration for some, is also a sign of Durkin’s growing confidence. He attends to the details of his characters’ home life and their ’80s milieu with such matter-of-fact specificity — the longish haircuts, the slightly oversized fashions, the snatches of Heart, New Order and the Psychedelic Furs on the soundtrack — that you may not fully see the emotional abyss he has quietly opened beneath them.”

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For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “At many points in ‘The Nest,’ it seems possible that the film is going to become a haunted-house horror. Or maybe it will become the story of a confidence man’s awful comeuppance, a house of lies coming tumbling down terribly. Yet that’s all mere, and useful, genre suggestion. ‘The Nest’ keeps calmly insisting that, sure things could go even screwier — but what we’re seeing is plenty bad, and plenty scary already.”

For The Playlist, Jessica Kiang wrote, “‘The Nest’ is a somber, grown-up sort of movie, made with remarkable poise and maturity, and a level of craft so compelling it can be difficult to tear your eyes from the screen. And if it doesn’t have the catchy, religious-cult hook of Durkin’s ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene,’ it has depth and resonance that arguably outstrip his 2011 Sundance Best Director winner. Set in the ’80s … the film’s insights are not confined solely to that period. Rather, the cracks that eventually widen into fissures and then chasms in this family’s fragile veneer all spring from far more timeless fatal flaws like greed, entitlement, and mistrust, which are sicknesses any of us can carry inside us without even noticing.”

Carrie Coon and Jude Law in the movie "The Nest."
(IFC Films)

‘Residue’

Written and directed by Merawi Gerima, son of the legendary filmmaker Haile Gerima, “Residue” makes for a noteworthy debut feature. A young man named Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) returns home to Washington, D.C., from L.A. and discovers his old neighborhood has undergone drastic changes, making for a story that grapples with the challenges and changes of gentrification when it lands on the place where you grew up. Having premiered at Slamdance and recently also played at Venice, the film is being released by Array in virtual cinemas and is now streaming on Netflix.

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For The Guardian, Redheyan Simonpillai wrote, “‘Residue’ is a fleeting and haunting lament for what is lost to gentrification, and other tolls on black life in America. But at the same, it’s exhilarating and monumental, laced with the sensation that we’re discovering a bold and sensitive new voice.”

For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “Gerima’s challenging, engrossing filmmaking style is measured, simultaneously realistic and impressionistic. What’s out of the frame is often as important, if not more important, than what’s in the frame … Jay’s confusion and rage over the gentrification of Q Street and beyond can’t help but spill over. Gerima layers the soundtrack with overheard conversations of utterly clueless white people, making any viewer empathize with the protagonist’s anger and impotence.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Like ‘Blindspotting’ and ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco,’ ‘Residue’ is nominally concerned with the resentments and contradictions of gentrification: In one particularly vivid scene, a group of young white women joke about crack houses over cocktails while blood pools under their feet. That kind of magical-realist imagery pervades a film that moves effortlessly between the world as it is, and the world as it feels to someone who can’t seem to find his footing between a quickly receding past and an unrecognizable present.”

Jacari Dye as young Jay in "Residue."
(Array Releasing)

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