The link between endemic poverty and religious practice has dug a deep furrow in modern literature, particularly in the genre known as American Gothic.
Though the term is specific to Grant Woods’s 1930 painting of a pioneering farming couple, it is now more descriptive of the rejection of rationality and reason, in favour of less worldly forces.
The exigencies of ordinary life are explained in terms of God and the devil, creating a mix of good and evil that is beyond the ken of those living in more enlightened surroundings.
In American literature, Puritan images of hell go back to Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving. They were followed by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner, while more recent examples include Cormac McCarthy, and even Stephen King.
It would be an understatement to say their stories have inspired, and continue to inspire, movies and television series. Some might say this is too much, given that, in its more extreme forms, these help to undermine belief in the faith sense.
Hollywood’s record of predatory preachers and corrupt religion includes The Night of the Hunter (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960) and There Will Be Blood (2007).
The movie adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel The Devil All the Time (Netflix) is another high point in this tradition. Few of the characters have redeeming virtues, and those who do are generally victims of the hypocritical men of the cloth and the law.
Pollock cannot be blamed for an over-active imagination. He was born and raised in the town of Knockemstill, Ohio, which is also the movie’s main setting. He worked for decades in a paper mill there before he took up writing in his 40s. Pollock also provides the voice-over narration that ties the threads of a dozen or more characters over several generations.
This aids the simplification of a complex storyline that starts with a traumatised World War II soldier (Bill Skarsgard) returning from the Pacific theatre to a community, that accelerates his decline into murder and madness. His beliefs fail to save his wife (Haley Bennett) from cancer, while his sacrifice of a child’s beloved pet seals his fate.
Their orphaned son (played as a boy by Michael Banks Repeta and later by Tom Holland) reacts by rejecting religion and embarking on his own campaign of revenge against others who commit evil under the cloak of God.
Among the victims of the father and the son are a serial-killing couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keogh) who prey on hitchhikers; the woman’s crooked cop brother (Sebastian Stan); and two nefarious preachers (Harry Melling and Robert Pattinson). Caught in the crossfire are two virtuous women (Eliza Scanlen and Mia Wasikowska), who also become victims of their circumstances.
This is bleak but compelling viewing, as director Antonio Campos (Christine) with co-screenwriter and brother Paulo, obtain top performances from the big cast.
Commendably, Campos and narrator Pollock treat their material with the respect it deserves, rather than veer into the nihilistic humour of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino.
Netflix rating: 16+. 138 minutes.
The More You Ignore Me
(387 Film Distribution)
A 1980s British boy band, The Smiths, and their lead singer Morrissey, are the centrepiece of this offbeat family comedy-drama that explores bi-polar disorder. They live without apparent income, other than welfare, in a Cold Comfort Farm village in northeast England. The mother (Sheridan Smith) has psychotic outbursts, wrecking the lives of a caring but overwhelmed husband (Mark Addy) and their empathetic daughter (Ella Hunt). She sees a way out through a fan obsession with the pop group, but is foiled by the mother, who becomes equally obsessed with Morrissey. It is hinted their shared addiction could be an inherited mental affliction, given the eccentric grandmother (Sheila Hancock) and other relatives who turn up. First-time director Keith English and screenwriter Jo Brand (based on her novel) fail to balance the humour and pathos, resulting in a predictable, but occasionally over-cooked, story of human predicament. Brand, a former psychiatric nurse, also plays a minor role as the local newsagent.
Rating: Mature audiences. 98 minutes.
Touted as one of India’s first ventures into science fiction, this low-key comedy largely depends on the appeal of its two main cast members, Vibrant Massey and Shweta Tripath. He is an ageless “demon” in charge of a spaceship that has been in orbit for 75 years to process human corpses sent up from earth. Tripath is a newbie human astronaut sent up to help him. Their task is to handle the post-death transition of body and soul, made easier by the non-humans’ ability to bring damaged bodies back to a pristine state. The concept is novel enough to disguise the low-tech spaceship environment, which resembles that of the mid-20th century (the actual setting is 2027). Most of the gear is failing, and this heightens the occupants’ frustration with their respective roles and with each other. Slow-moving, but worth the effort as an example of Bollywood exploring new horizons.
Netflix rating: 13+. 113 minutes.
American author Nancy Springer concocted a teenage sister for Sherlock Holmes, creating yet another spinoff from Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. It is also a springboard for 16-year-old Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) as an early 20th century sleuth who bunks off to search for her mother, and gets mixed up in suffrage politics. Brothers Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) are old-school, and the plot thickens when Enola meets a fellow runaway – Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), who is crucial to the suffrage vote. The screenplay is by the prodigious Jack Thorne (The Secret Garden, The Eddy, Radioactive and The Aeronauts are just some of his recent efforts), who takes the easy road, leaving Brown to do the heavy work.
Netflix rating: 13+. 123 minutes.