Total Depravity and The Devil All the Time

LeMarr Jackson

Theologian R.C. Sproul said that “we are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.” The theological philosophy of total depravity underscores the weight of sin on humanity. The film The Devil All The Time, new to Netflix, is a Southern-Gothic drama that explores the dark side of human nature and the role that faith plays when confronting total depravity.

Let’s first get on the same page. Total depravity refers to the original sin that led to The Fall. We all currently participate in it; the Bible refers to this as indulging in the flesh. Although our sinful nature is a fundamental part of who we are, total depravity does not mean that humans are only or absolutely sinful.

Think about it this way: all middle-school students are fundamentally awkward. It’s the nature of adolescence. However, this does not mean that everyone reaches “peak” awkwardness in 7th grade. Some of us continue to reach new heights with every new job or first date. At the same time, middle-school students are not only awkward. They are hilarious, vibrant, and curious, all in their awkwardness. This is similar to the concept of total depravity: sin is at the core of the human condition, but this does not mean that we are all rotten to the core.

God’s answer to the destructive disease of sin is grace. Grace is simply undeserved favor, and God uses this to work on our hearts. In the book of Jonah we see God use grace and compassion to try to get Jonah’s heart to change. He uses grace to change Paul’s mentality from killing believers to spreading the gospel. Ultimately, grace is Jesus’ mission on Earth. Heaven is only attainable because of the grace displayed on the cross. We are all in desperate need of God’s grace. The Devil All The Time sheds light on this truth.

Sin is at the core of the human condition, but this does not mean that we are all rotten to the core.

The Devil All the Time, directed by Antonio Campos, introduces the concept of human depravity through the story of Arvin Russell (Tom Holland). At 9-years-old, Arvin witnesses the struggles of his parents: his father is both wrestling with his faith and coping with PTSD from World War II, while his mother is diagnosed with cancer. This leads Arvin’s father to desperately ask God to spare his wife, even sacrificing Arvin's dog as an offering. Her eventual death leaves him broken, and he ultimately commits suicide. Young Arvin has already experienced more darkness than most people will in their lifetime. Total depravity implies that all of creation is suffering from the weight of The Fall—the weight of sin. The focus here isn’t on Arvin’s sin, but on the way he experiences the impact of total depravity.

The story continues to follow Arvin, who is adopted by his grandmother. As he grows up, he meets many different characters who are dealing with their own demons. Much of the film takes place in religious settings, with Christian language and beliefs woven throughout. However, some of the most “devout” believers are the ones who commit the worst atrocities. One preacher, Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), kills his wife, hoping that God’s miraculous healing power will be evident when Roy’s prayers resurrect her. When his awful plan fails, it leaves their daughter Lenora (Eliza Scanlon) orphaned. Arvin's grandmother takes Lenora in, where she becomes Arvin's adopted sister. Yet this doesn't shield her later in the film, when another corrupted pastor (Robert Pattinson) abuses her. In response, Arvin sets down a path of destruction to get revenge.

As director, Campos uses these characters to show the depravity of humankind, without automatically offering a solution. The glimmers of grace in the film are subtle, but powerful when you find them. Grace is evident in the relationship developed by Arvin and Lenora, who genuinely care for one another as siblings, despite the tragic circumstances that brought them together in the same household. Arvin fights the bullies who antagonize Lenora at school, foreshadowing the great lengths he will go to in order to protect his innocent and naive sister. Grace is shown through opportunities for closure in seemingly small moments, as when Arvin is able to bury the bones of his childhood dog at his father’s altar. Almost a decade has passed since Arvin lost his mother, father, and dog all at once, and this symbolic gesture allows him to make some peace with his past.

Grace is also displayed toward the end of the film in what looks like supernatural intervention. (Spoilers ahead.) In his quest for vengeance, Arvin has done some really bad things; it almost seems like the plot is bending toward a tragic end for our protagonist. Yet in two different scenarios, Arvin should have been shot, but he miraculously survives both gunfights—including a shoot-out with a crooked sheriff that could very well have been the end of his story. The sheriff appears to shoot Arvin at close range, yet Arvin survives unscathed. There is no explanation given, from Arvin or the movie’s omniscient narrator, as to how this is possible. This surprising moment powerfully illustrates unmerited grace.

Sin, no matter how depraved, stands in the shadow of grace. Just as God’s love is pervasive, so is the presence of evil. But God’s love is more powerful. Employing an ominous musical score, dark imagery, and suspenseful tone, The Devil All the Time does not shy away from the darkest places humans can bring each other: abusive religion, sexual violence, murder. The “devil” is clearly there, all of the time. But this tightly woven plot is not merely crafted to depict human depravity. In the connections made between the characters, in the closure offered in the face of pain, and in the miracle of a spared life, we can see the orchestration of God and the light of Christ. It’s a gritty, realistic grace, but it’s there, all the time.

Topics: Movies