This article contains mild spoilers for The Devil All the Time
When Robert Pattinson was preparing for his role as Reverend Preston Teagardin, the genteel-seeming preacher in director Antonio Campos's The Devil All the Time, he watched videos of evangelical preachers on YouTube, paying attention to the persuasive rhythm of their voices to inform the southern drawl of his character. He and Campos also watched videos of pop-stars from the Sixties, absorbing to the magnetic way in which Elvis spoke in interviews, to conjure a similar spell when Teagardin talks.
The role, which Campos has said is, "almost closer to a possession than it is a performance", feels like a study of the power of words to transfix and emotionally manipulate us. In the scene in which Teagardin arrives as the town's new preacher he sees the chicken livers which Arvin's grandmother Emma has bought for the congregation, grotesquely dipping his fingers into the brown juice on the plate and inserting them into his mouth.
Seeing these hunks of gristle, the narrator tells us that Teagardin feels the "stirrings of a sermon" coming on, and moments later he uses his sway over the crowd to embarrass her meagre offering, saying he will bite the bullet in eating them so others can enjoy their meal. Instead of applauding her willingness to give what she can, the Reverend wants to show he can make her squirm under the pretence he is commending her charity.
Pattinson's Teagardin joins cinema's morally dubious men of the cloth who preach while permitting themselves to sin in private; an unholy man of God who feels reminiscent of Paul Dano's charlatan preacher Eli in There Will Be Blood, or perhaps most famously Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, the 1955 thriller about a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm a widow.
Teagardin similarly lures in young women by promising them salvation then discarding them when he is done. He is a slippery figure who feels like the perfect villain for a moment when making a loud show of your beliefs is more importantly than quietly proving them. His cry of "delusions!", which comes as he convulses in front of the congregation, feels like a sly hint to the audience of the exact affliction he suffers from.
The number of villains we have to contend with in The Devil All the Time occasionally feels overplayed, with grieving husbands, wily seductresses and orphaned sons all happy to commit murder to assuage their various pains. In Teagardin, the film finds its most convincing villain, one who uses the influence and access which the church grants him to prey on young girls, forcing them to obey as he pushes their heads down, or asking them frankly on the seat of his car, "Have you truly opened yourself to the Lord?"
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