The Devil All The Time Review
The Devil All The Time is a film that is hard to introduce in just a few sentences. The story isn’t particularly complicated, but it requires you to experience rather than read about it. Based on Donald Ray Pollock’s relatively new novel, it follows various, more or less, despicable human beings in Ohio and Virginia. These include Tom Holland’s Arvin Russell who is the closest thing we get to a protagonist, Robert Pattinson’s Reverend Preston Teagardin and Sebastian Stan’s corrupt sheriff, Lee Bodecker.
Directed by Antonio Campos, the story is bleak, in every sense of the word. Some reviews have noted the lack of humour, especially from Holland who is primarily seen as a comedic actor. It’s not so much the lack of humour, but the lack of basic human decency or warmth that is so jarring. The overall goal of the film seems just to explore the existence of evil and how it infiltrates our minds. Do bad actions make a bad man? How, if at all, can redemption be reached?
Religion and personal faith are also under the magnifying glass for Campos. Faith here is something that can corrupt and turn a desperate man to commit atrocious sins. Set mostly in 1957 and 1965, although Campos switches between different timelines fast and often, the United States is a country stuck between two wars. The Second World War has traumatised Arvin’s father Willard, but the Vietnam War casts a shadow over his grown son in the future, trapping all the characters in a limbo of sorts. Innocence is a rarity and even the smallest flicker of it is extinguished fast and violently.
The Devil All The Time features an impressive ensemble cast and without it, the film would not work. Pattinson is committed and strange, but the film suffers from the excessively theatrical nature of his performance. Holland is superb and portrays a type of brutality that is so far removed from his public persona, it feels almost sinful to witness. Yet, at the same time, it’s remarkably satisfying and exciting. Holland keeps his jaw tight and his mouth pinched closed, as if struggling to hold in all the rage and damage he has bottled up.
The most important and impressive performance belongs to Bill Skarsgård. His role is limited to the first act, but it sets the tone and allows him to show off his versatility. There’s a haunted look in Willard’s eye after he returns from the war, momentarily cured by his new wife Charlotte, but in The Devil All The Time innocence and happiness are punished and often completely destroyed, turning its characters into tormented shells of their former selves.
Campos’ film has an unusual, almost misogynistic quality to it. While Campos probably doesn’t agree with his toxic male characters’ world view and their murderous tendencies, it’s his job to frame his film as if he condemns these acts. But that doesn't really happen as women are cast aside and abandoned like yesterday’s newspaper - worthless and dated. Their deaths are bloodier and the camera lingers on their wounds and still bodies for longer, making a bigger deal out of their tragedies than the men’s. In a way, women rule the world in this world - they send men into despair, fuelling the aimless narrative an inch closer to the finish line. Campos’ film succumbs to the male gaze without a fight, never once bothering to give the women inner life or purpose outside of their male companions.
Despite all its flaws, The Devil All The Time is strangely captivating. It’s a cruel film, one that offers very few rewards at the end of its intertwined and overlapping narrative. It shows us how love and desperation often turn to violence and the film acts as a fascinating study of masculinity, trapped between two wars and the overwhelming power of religion. Visually it is exceptional and the stellar cast carry the narrative on their shoulders, but the film's lack of aim and overall message is too damaging to recover from. It’s often an uncomfortable watch, both because of the violent acts it portrays and its inherent bleakness, but it’s one that will stay with you, in the best and worst possible way.
The Devil All The Time streams on Netflix from September 16.