“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.”
— William S. Burroughs
The Devil All The Time ends with the main character, Arvin, imagining himself going to Vietnam to fight, not because he wants to, but because he’s good at it. Having spent most of his young life trying to escape the circle of absurd violence that grips him and his world, he goes on to embrace a violence from within an organized and military frame, simply because it’s the only thing he knows how to do. He has turned into a killing machine, something America seems to generate and produce profusely.
One can easily imagine Arvin ten years down the line as a Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now type character (coincidentally, Arvin’s father’s name is Willard). The harrowing image of the crucified soldier which kickstarts the film’s circle of violence would actually fit perfectly in Colonel Kurtz’s insane jungle fortress scene. But so would the forests of midwest USA where Arvin is raised, a USA that is represented as a hellish place where most people are caught in the grip of religious fervor, closer to a kind of possession by evil forces, filtered through a crude form of organized religion.
Religious characters in the film repeatedly perform primitive acts in the name of religion, as if their conception of Christianity has been taken over by a primeval delirium (at some point Arvin’s father, a deeply religious man, crucifies a dog as sacrifice to god in exchange for saving his wife). Another deeply religious character murders his own wife in the belief that he will resurrect her with the grace of god. One brilliant shot has the lustful Reverend Teargardin’s presence slowly obscure a crucifix behind him until it is no longer visible and all we can see is his face.
The film paints a grim picture of rural America and America in general as a hellish nightmare caught in the grip of a primitive and evil violence that seems to frantically possess its land and people.
“The horror, the horror!” in the immortal words of Colonel Kurtz.
This horrific barbarism seems to be standard practice across this haunted landscape and is often overlooked as long as it is practiced within the reigns of an authority which can keep it in check and anchor it (family, religion, politics, military, organized crime, local authority…). After all, is Kurtz’s cardinal sin not the fact that he fully embraced a primal and “savage” form of order free from the pretenses of the American power structure and its illusion of organization and control? America is a land of institutions of power that hold the sole rights to sanctioned violence, once Kurtz breaches that wall of authority and practices a freeform ritualistic violence of his own, he becomes a danger and must be “terminated with extreme prejudice”. The power of Kurtz however, lies in his galvanizing of his own killer by accepting his death as a form of ritual sacrifice, and thus subverting Willard’s disciplined killing machine into an active participant in and heir to Kurtz’s madness.
Are Vietnam, Japan, and Ohio (Where The Devil All The Time occurs) one and the same? The war at home mirroring the war away from it, perhaps even shaping it and vice versa? Is every war waged by America a mirror of the horror within?
It is no coincidence that several action hits from the 1980s (the immediate aftermath of Vietnam) featured thinly veiled Vietnam-like landscapes where Vietnam vets redeemed themselves by defeating a symbolic enemy (in 2020 films like Da Five Bloods by Spike Lee are still revisiting the Vietnam trauma, from an African American perspective in this case). We often forget that Rambo: First Blood (1982) was set in the forests of Washington State and not in Vietnam and that Rambo himself was first presented as a vet suffering from PTSD who seems to be reliving his Vietnam experience in the forests of the Northwest USA and against an enemy from within: police brutality. The police are portrayed as corrupt, complacent, and harboring an inherent hatred for vets, to the extent that the film is practically a depiction of a low key battle between the police and the army!
The surprise success of First Blood sparked an interest in Rambo as a perfect candidate to be a receptacle of blunt American ideology, prompting his reinvention in subsequent entries as a fine tuned killing machine, a savior and enforcer of pure American justice (minus the PTSD).
In a sense, First Blood’s Rambo is a highly sensationalized version of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle: both Vietnam vets suffering from PTSD and enforcing their skewed idea of justice upon various forms of organized political, authoritative, and criminal elements.
Predator (1987) is also set in the Vietnam-like jungles of Central America and features Arnold Schwartzeneger as Dutch, a Vietnam vet, and his special forces team who are pure enforcers of the American willpower, killing machines devoid of any form of PTSD. They are outdone, however, by an alien killing machine that manages to overpower their own ability. It is only when Dutch drops all his modern gadgets and weapons and reverts to a primitive form of organic warfare against the alien, not unlike Willard’s killing of Kurtz, that he is able to destroy the creature.
Robocop (1987) takes the concept of the killing machine to its literal end. A policeman suffering from lethal injuries is transformed into a robot that is programmed to enforce justice. In contrast to Apocalypse Now’s “extreme prejudice”, Robocop seems to have no prejudice whatsoever when it comes to apprehending criminals, he is simply upholding justice. He even treats the criminals fairly and brings them in alive without resorting to excess violence or inflicting any injuries upon them. He is a justice machine in the most objective of senses and is posited as a success.
It is only when elements of his human self (memories of his death and his family) reinsert themselves or resurface back into his consciousness that his human side is revealed (he removes his metal mask to reveal a human face with a robotic base), and it is only then that he is transformed into a true killing machine: he pursues his killers and instead of apprehending them, which he has the opportunity to do, he kills them with “extreme prejudice”, upon which he remembers his own name (his subjective identity). Killing machines are distinctly human after all!
One film that painstakingly chronicles the creation process of the American killing machine in all of its minute details is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). A film almost documentary in its meticulous representation of a Vietnam War bootcamp and the process in which young men are literally transformed into killing machines as if in a factory.
In Kubrick’s eyes, all soldiers are killing machines by practice. The act of killing is either externalized towards the enemy, epitomized by the character of “Mother” who pushes aside his thoughts and fears and focuses on destroying the enemy at all costs, or it is internalized and implodes upon the figures of authority and the soldier himself. This type is represented by Private Pyle, who despite being dim witted and slow, and despite the abuse of his drill sergeant and fellow soldiers alike, finally finds the killing machine within him.
However, the trauma he has suffered even before going to war causes him to implode and kill his sergeant while also committing suicide. This final act echoes Travis’s suicidal gesture at the end of the shooting in the hotel in Taxi Driver, Rambo’s seeming death wish that causes him to provoke a face off with the local authorities, and Willard’s suicide in The Devil All The Time after realizing that he had taken things too far in his religious zeal and skewed beliefs.
Private Joker (Mathew Modine) attempts to rise above this inescapable dichotomy within every soldier by taking on a cynical and comic stance that allows him to distance himself from the fact that he is an active participant in a war. He seems to successfully navigate this thin line throughout the film, separating himself from the fold in a sense. However, by the end, he is forced to come to terms with the fact that his attitude has been delusional and that he is actually himself a killing machine as well (he is forced to kill a young female sniper). All the jokes in the world cannot change how serious war is for everyone involved. In an obvious dig at films like M*A*S*H* (1970) that make light of war, Kubrick is emphatically screaming out, War Is No Joke!
An interesting aspect that Full Metal Jacket touches upon is the seemingly banal and ridiculous songs the drill sergeant uses during the marching drills to keep the soldiers in rhythm and the similarly ridiculous oaths the soldiers scream out before sleeping. In Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Kay, an actual android (machine) that is programmed to kill other rogue androids, is subjected to a baseline realignment test after each job, in which he is read a number of meaningless lines who’s apparent purpose is to realign his mind and perhaps prevent any irregularities resulting from any possible traumas incurred during the act of killing. Fittingly, Kay seems to fully embrace his humanity throughout 2049, and has fully experienced it by the time the film comes to an end, in stark contrast to the soldiers in Full Metal Jacket who start out as regular young men and end up as killing machines, stripped of nuance.
Killing machines are born out of the horror and fear from within that permeates American society. It’s become somewhat of a cliche in American films to see a kid who would later become a “killer” being indoctrinated early on by their father on how to hunt (in most cases the rifle is forcefully shoved into their hands) or on how to beat up someone who’s bullying them or their kin, followed by the obligatory church attending scene. The Devil All The Time is no exception, in fact it is a condensed image of this form of upbringing: a society violent to the core breeding killing machines that counter this absurd violence with what they believe is a just and controlled violence of their own. We’ve seen examples of this violence imploding on its bearers and their surrounding figures of authority, but what about the cases where this horror and violence from within explode on a perceived enemy?
In American Sniper (2014) we are taken through a quick series of flashes of Chris Kyle’s early life, as if going through the motions of the usual killing machine cliches, we see the aforementioned hunting with the father scene, the self defense against bullies scene, and the sitting in church listening to the preacher scene. However, two scenes that occur in passing during these flashes caught my attention in particular: the two instances in which Kyle learns of terrorist attacks on America (the 1998 US embassy in Kenya attack and 9–11). It is very significant that both instances are practically identical, Kyle sees both on TV and stands there silently taking them in with a look of anger in the first case and horror in the second. The prevalence of horror transmitted through media entails a certain type of controlled manipulation of the subject to feel and react in a specific sense. The film is implicitly stating that this horror is a major and justified contribution in Kyle’s transformation into a killing machine. Without much deliberation or thought from his part and without introduction, Kyle unceremoniously volunteers in the Navy SEALS immediately after seeing the Kenya attacks happening on TV. The film seems to suggest that this is the normal thing any American would and should do upon seeing these deeply triggering images.
Upon returning from one of his tours in Iraq, we see Kyle sitting in his living room watching an empty screen and hearing war sounds coming out of it, as if awaiting the next triggering event that will send him on his next mission. Media is a major contributor in these characters’ delirium. In Taxi Driver, Travis ultimately drops the TV set that keeps showing him images of wholesome and “normal” relationships and breaks it, Kyle however, doesn’t. Could this be the invisible thread that holds an explosive killing machine from becoming an implosive one?
It is interesting that Kyle himself was shot to death by a crazed veteran PTSD victim he was trying to help recover, something the film only mentions briefly in writing at the end of the film but is extremely significant. Perhaps seeing Kyle as an oppressive figure of authority not unlike the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, the killer would claim that while in Kyle’s car “They just wouldn’t talk to me, so I shot them”, as if a certain hypocrisy in Kyle’s desire to “help” others is betrayed in this act. A rare instance of the implosive and explosive meeting in a single event. It is worth noting that the scene in which Kyle leaves with the soon to be killer and his wife watches on as if aware of what is going to happen, would fit perfectly in The Devil All The Time, a portrait of American violence personified.
Like “Mother” in Full Metal Jacket, and the special forces in Predator, and perhaps like the Predator himself in the eyes of Iraqis, Kyle is a driving force of a killing machine. He seems to be able to put aside his feelings and discard his PTSD for the good of the war effort. When asked by an army psychologist about whether he’s haunted by his 140+ killings, he confidently replies “that stuff is not for me”. Kyle is absolutely dedicated to his craft to the point where he favors it over his family, a true killing machine!
There seems to be an implicit code of behavior amongst the killing machines who manage to remain faithful to their purpose without turning it towards themselves or their fellow citizens. A code that seems to block any other sentiment or rationale that might negate their killing drive. This dynamic of coding and decoding, programming and deprogramming seems to govern the behavior of the killing machine.
The opening crucifixion scene in The Devil All The Time reminded me of the opening scene of The Exorcist in subtle ways. In The Exorcist (1973), a raw and primal evil is uncovered by an American priest excavating in the Orient, and brought back home to haunt the young Reagan and her family. But is the evil really imported from the orient back to the US or has it been dormant and waiting within for some episode of delirium to reignite it?
Could that explain in practical and concrete terms why Covid19 exploded in the US far more than it did in China (the orient)? It just needed a richer imagination to thrive upon? After all isn’t the possession in The Exorcist a form of disease that Father Merrin brings over from Iraq and infects Reagan with?
Did America grossly misinterpret Christianity just like it terribly handled Covid19? Is Father Merrin the victim of the same neurotic religious zeal that the characters of The Devil All The Time suffer from? Like Willard he is projecting his oriental hallucinations upon an American counterpart, and like Reverend Teargardin, who seduces and impregnates a young girl and subsequently abandons her and leaves her to commit suicide, his victim is an unassuming young girl on whom he superimposes and projects an imagined evil. Merrin’s inability to fathom a pre-Abrahamic pagan East immediately causes him a frightful shock that possesses and haunts him (the elaborate opening sequence that focuses on this episode of Merrin’s is not just for effect, it is saying something profound about the nature of the coming horror, one that is from within).
It is suggested that Father Karras, Merrin’s partner in the exorcism, is himself somehow complicit in the possession of Reagan as he is seen lurking around her mother in the early stages of the film. Is Reagan’s possession a projection of both Merrin and Karras’ inner demons? The shot where Merrin sees the demon he saw in Iraq side by side with Reagan resembles a backlit film projection. Are Karras and Merrin projecting their inner horror upon Reagan? It is not for nothing that a huge chunk of the film focuses literally on Karras’ inner demons.
Bill Skarsgard, who plays Willard in The Devil All The Time, is also the recent quintessential face of American horror in the form of IT’s Pennywise. In one fascinating scene in IT (2018), the children, haunted by an overwhelming horror in the form of an evil clown who taps into their deepest fears, use a slide projector in an attempt to understand the nature of this relentless horror that is haunting them by viewing maps of the area. The projector suddenly becomes autonomous and projects a succession of images from the children’s own memory/subconscious, triggering their fear. The apparatus is overtaken by what is literally a projection of the children’s childhood trauma, a mental image that ends up controlling the physical world and ultimately exploding out of the screen in the form of a giant and vicious looking Pennywise that is bigger and scarier than ever. Again, an autonomous screen overpowers its viewers and forces its own narrative upon them.
In the final scene of the The Devil All The Time, Arvin hitches a ride with a hippie in a VW van and relieved that he has escaped, gradually falls asleep, as if finally acknowledging how tired he’s been from keeping his guard up all this time. In retrospect, knowing the weird turn the hippie movement later took, we as spectators are left bewildered as the driver may or may not be a Charles Manson type guy, a new incarnation of the horror Arvin thinks he’s escaped and is now surrendering to by falling asleep in his hands.
Embedded within the collusion of all these elements of death and horror across an intricate and interconnected cinematic web, is a question that is constantly being put forth that transcends the fabric of cinema into that of everyday livelihood. We enter 2021 with a renewed promise of war looming on the horizon, and the man so many killing machines are willing to go to war for is a killing machine himself. I wonder what kind of film his life would be made into (Calling Oliver Stone)! Would we see those cliche images of hunting, lessons in facing bullies, and casual church going? Or will we just see an idiot with his hand on the trigger that will end the world? Is this sustained outward violence that America seems to perpetually inflict on others merely an externalization of this primal horror residing within? A specter of death that alternates between suicide and genocide? Apocalypse now, apocalypse all the time, the devil now, the devil all the time!