The Devil All the Time, 2020.
Directed by Antonio Campos.
Starring Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Harry Melling, Pokey LaFarge, Lucy Faust, Douglas Hodge, Eric Mendenhall, Cory Scott, Allen Michael Harding, Abby Glover, Emma Coulter, Michael Banks Repeta, David Maldonado, Mark Jeffrey Miller, Jason Collett, Kristin Griffith, Phillip DeVona, Morganna Bridgers, Drew Starkey, David Atkinson, Gregory Kelly, Ever Eloise Landrum, Given Sharp, Ivan Hoey Jr., Zack Shires, Sarah Hamff, Shannon Frye, and Donald Ray Pollock.
Sinister characters converge around a young man devoted to protecting those he loves in a postwar backwoods town teeming with corruption and brutality.
After having seen The Devil All the Time, I’m convinced director Antonio Campos (co-writing alongside Paulo Campos) pitched Netflix a television series based on the Donald Ray Pollock novel of the same name only for a misunderstanding to occur where they greenlit the project as a two and a half hour movie, subsequently leaving the filmmaker puzzled as to how to make a dense narrative packed with fascinating characters intersecting plot threads with one another (all while simultaneously hammering home the many ways religion turns good people evil or simply enables/gives the tools to already nasty individuals to get away with their ghastly behavior suspicion free) work.
The solution is apparently calling in every favor possible to major Hollywood actors available and interested in doing some more independent work. Boasting one of the most loaded casts to grace a movie all year, The Devil All the Time mostly focuses on Tom Holland’s Arvin, a troubled young man with a horrifying childhood at the hands of his tormented World War II veteran father Willard (Bill Skarsgård). It’s best to not directly explain what happens, as the past makes up the first act of the film, but even then the gears are spinning for the various subplots that will inevitably find themselves on a collision course with Arvin.
There’s a pair of married serial killers played by Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, who pick up hitchhikers as their unsuspecting prey before taking them out into the woods, coaxing the victim into sexual intercourse before photographing the murder. Elsewhere is a sheriff played by Sebastian Stan who is actually the brother to Riley Keough’s character, but is more concerned with rising in political rank and his opponents not digging up his own crimes rather than getting her out of the disturbing situation she is willingly a part of. In the background of all of this is a sexual predator preacher played by Robert Pattinson, whose charisma funneled into such a manipulative persona makes for arguably the most compelling character to watch. He and Tom Holland eventually share a scene together that is bursting with suspense and riveting drama, that you can tell it’s what the rest of the film is going for but can’t muster up simply because there’s just not enough time to give to any of the revolving story arcs.
Then there are the ladies orbiting these people’s lives, which are basically just plot devices for more tragedy designed to further push the intertwining narrative forward. As little important as they feel in terms of character, their inclusion does make for fine performances from the likes of Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, and the always terrific Mia Wasikowska. Cancer, suicide, sexual abuse; The Devil All the Time certainly makes for an appropriate title. It’s just so overstuffed with these elements that its examination of how religion plays a part in all the violence never really comes to fruition. There’s an interesting creative choice seeing Donald Ray Pollock narrating the story, but it’s overbearing and rarely amounts to anything revealing about the characters, and at worst, flat out describes what’s on screen for the viewer.
Antonio Campos is definitely going for some contrast in what religion means to the average person and the demented, but it’s all white noise and perhaps lost in translation from the book. It’s no surprise that Tom Holland is the glue holding it all together, as him mirroring his father all the way up until the Vietnam War heating up by the time the movie climaxes (the sprawling story takes place in both Ohio and West Virginia), especially as the violence ramps up, sucks us in hoping he doesn’t lose himself completely to his righteous participation battling evil.
There’s a line in the opening narration that says all of these people are brought together by a combination of luck and God, so it’s appreciated that the film is upfront about how convenient it all is. The Devil All the Time fares much better as a pulpy tale of brooding Southern violence and tragedy, as its admittedly not always obvious where things are headed besides somewhere grim. And when you have a cast this supremely talented rolling with a story so twisted and morally mucky, it’s easy to latch onto every harrowing event and is less jarring whenever we transition to another character. Plenty of what’s here could be stripped away to make for a tighter and more focused, far more thoughtfully provocative thriller, but it’s also easily digestible as is, so long as none of the above sounds triggering. No one wants to watch movies like The Devil All the Time all the time, but some of the time it can be a flawed yet devilishly good time.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com