The Devil All the Time (2020)
Everyone ends up in the same damned place.
A sweaty, mean-spirited, slow-moving Sothern Gothic thriller, The Devil All the Time struggles to maintain its focus and fails to weave its multiple characters and story threads into a fully satisfying whole.
Based on the acclaimed 2011 novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who also serves as the film’s narrator, The Devil All the Time tries to explore ‘evil’ and its connection to religion, sex, violence, and power, in an effort to show us how the ‘devil’ can manifest in many different ways ‘all the time.’ All the time may indeed be the film’s biggest problem as there’s too much going on. There are too many unsavory types with very little in the way of characterization that at nearly two-and-a-half hours, part of me thinks that this may have worked better as a series or two-parter on Netflix as opposed to a single film. Director Antonio Campos (who penned the screenplay with his brother Paulo) has proven his mettle with the long-form series with the brilliant The Sinner (2017 – ), and the format would have served to give the multiple storylines space to properly breathe and pay off for the audience.
Mainly set between 1957 to ’65 in the small town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, the film possesses a nonlinear narrative that spans a couple of decades, between the close of World War II to the Vietnam War. At the center of the narrative is denim-jacket wearing rebel Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), who carries with him scars from his traumatic childhood. The opening portion of the film, which is arguably the most frightening, takes us through his profoundly religious father Willard’s (Bill Skarsgård) backstory where we see flashbacks of his time during World War II, chiefly when he witnesses a soldier being skinned alive and crucified. Brought up in a corrupt Appalachian community by his traumatized father, Arvin eventually sees his mother Charlotte (Haley Bennett) die from cancer, and his grief-stricken father take his own life.
Following this painful tragedy, Arvin is raised by his grandmother, Emma (Kristin Griffith), who’s also caring for her adopted daughter Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Arvin learns to use his fists to solve his problems and violence to punish ‘sinners.’ Alas, events get even bleaker with the arrival of a corrupt new church preacher with a Southern drawl and a bombastic gift for reciting scripture, Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson,) who sets his predatory sights on deflowering the innocent Lenora.
Competently shot by Campos, the film looks bleak and unpleasant (thanks to Craig Lathrop’s first-rate production design) and somewhat succeeds in showing vile, nasty individuals doing their deeds. Sadly, it fails to explore what makes these ‘sinners’ tick or deliver any kind of meaningful message on the relationship between faith and evil. Likewise, the editing by Sofía Subercaseaux, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus (2013), lacks rhythm and comes off as scattered, with the film moving aimlessly between characters that aren’t particularly well-drawn, then meandering along slowly until it stops.
What makes The Devil All the Time somewhat worthwhile are the performances from its star-studded ensemble. Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), does a solid job as Arvin, the one person that tries to hold out from the Devil and is skeptical of the way religion is used. Unfortunately, as viewers, I feel that we never really get to know the guy and therefore, can’t fully identify with him.
The rest of the A-grade cast manages to look unattractive while portraying a stack of loathsome, crooked individuals. Harry Melling, aka Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series (2001 – 11), is unsettling as hell, depicting a twisted preacher named Roy Laferty who pours a bunch of spiders over his head during a sermon to demonstrate his faith in God, later marrying Mia Wasikowska’s Helen before using her as an ill-fated sacrifice. As expected, good ol’ RPats, Twilight (2008), is also very good as a slick-looking preacher with a penchant for young girls; however, those who consider themselves to be a little ‘Rob-sessed’ may be disappointed with Pattinson’s lack of screen time despite his captivating work.
Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Riley Keough, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), are effective as a couple of serial killers named Carl and Sandy Henderson, who pick up hitchhikers along the highways of Ohio and West Virginia, encouraging them to have sex with Sandy (while Carl takes photographs) before murdering them in ghastly ways. However, while I was intrigued in this side plot, the couple’s bond, connection, or motives are never made clear, which is a bit of a shame. Heck, even Sebastian Stan’s pudgy corrupt lawman Sheriff Lee Bodecker (who is also Sandy’s brother) could have done with more fleshing out. Herein lies the biggest problem with the film. So many great actors turn up with narratives that could easily be a film within themselves, but there is only so much Campos can do with each thread, which in turn leaves the package feeling ironically both incomplete and overstuffed.
In the end, there’s very little beyond surface-level darkness and bleak nihilism in The Devil All the Time — no catharsis, no redemption, and seemingly no point. Sure, the performances are strong, and the film looks and feels depressingly authentic; but I think that it should have been better, offering more than just a cavalcade of detestable people doing sickening things. Look, if you want to spend a couple of hours in Hillbilly Hell, you may enjoy this. Otherwise, I’d avoid stopping over at this tiny backwater town.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie