The Devil All the Time Ending Explained


The revelation late in the picture that Lee told Arvin some people exist to die creates a self-fulling prophecy to Arvin’s life. He is here to make good on that promise, as most of these broken people would be better off in the ground where they can’t hurt anyone. It begins with the calculated murder of the predatory Preston, but through a series of convoluted circumstances, he also winds up bumming a ride with Carl and Sandy, who’ve lived in their own separate little movie as mass murderers. The only killing we see in depth is how they slaughtered Lenora’s missing father, but they’ve been collecting “models” for 15 years by the time Arvin gets into their car.

Like their victim Roy Laferty, Sandy is having second thoughts about her life as a serial killer before she dies. She did it mostly just to please Carl. Years later though, she wanted out. She even daydreamed about running away with Arvin before the young man puts a bullet in her lover’s head. Soon she follows him across the bar, unaware the path she is on has been set for years—a cynic might say since the day her father walked out—and now all that’s left is the sudden surprise of oblivion.

And this brings us back to the ending where Arvin soon sends the man who told him some folks are just here to be buried to an early grave. He didn’t want to kill him, but Bodecker wanted revenge for his murderous sister. And after that showdown, all the people who an Old Testament God might say had it coming have met their fates. But Arvin doesn’t believe in God, per se, even if he returned to his childhood home to make peace with Him and the father who created a world in fear of spirits. Arvin buries the dog his father killed, plus the Luger, which is an obvious metaphor of him trying to bury the trauma his father imparted to him. With the dog given the rest he hoped his mother and father found, he’s free to leave this dark corner of America.

But is the rest of it any better? Sitting next to a proto-hippie as he falls asleep listening about escalation in Vietnam, Arvin can imagine a world where he breaks the cycle of violence he and everyone he knows lives on. He can find a girl and settle down without the trauma that manifested itself as the Devil in his papa. But he’s already embraced Willard’s inheritance for violence, hasn’t he? Sure, he buries Dad’s Luger in the final moments, but only after using it to kill four people, the first of which was not in self-defense.

And then there are his own second thoughts about trying to find a peaceful life. It’s troubling he entertains the idea of signing up for the Vietnam War while thinking of a better tomorrow. And then he is also considering that maybe his grandmother (and father) could be right about prayer. Even outside of Knockemstiff, he is still in a vision of America that is violent, circular, uncaring, and doomed to repeat the sins of its fathers. One war has ended but another is begun. The narrator even says Arvin “wasn’t sure if he was going backwards or forwards.” His end is his beginning.

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