Film Review – The Devil All the Time
The Devil All the Time
The title The Devil All the Time (2020) is an apt description for the story it tells. This is a brutal tale of despicable characters doing despicable acts to one another. Those that populate it are either the perpetrators of cruelty or the victims of it. It’s as though the film is operating as a test – pushing to see how far into the depths audiences are willing to go. Like God allowing Satan to test Job’s faithfulness, so too does this test our commitment to stick with it until the very end. There is little to no levity – like the title suggests, evil is a constant presence here.
Whether this method is effective will vary from viewer to viewer. Some will appreciate the unflinching examination of such unlikeable people. Others will recoil with how dark it is. I’m leaning more towards the latter. For as well made as it is and how convincing the performances were, it was difficult to sit and watch the cycle of violence and abuse over and over again. That’s not to say the topic isn’t an important one. Yes, there are bad people in the world who do terrible things and sometimes get away with it, but what is the movie trying to say about this? To simply point out the reality of evil isn’t enough.
There’s an emotional detachment in the way director/co-writer Antonio Campos presents this theme. Adapting Donald Ray Pollock’s novel, Campos (along with his brother and co-writer, Paulo) looks at how immorality and death can infect an entire community, between family and friends and down through generations, but he does so from a distance. He acknowledges that these are bad people but doesn’t push deeper than that. There’s a passiveness in how the camera shoots the characters – we don’t get a sense of perspective or how Campos feels about what is happening on screen. Some may argue this is a good thing, that we should be given an unbiased view so that we can make our own decisions. But in this context, that passivity feels more like a surrender.
The plot meanders among a multitude of characters immediately following WWII right up to Vietnam. The backwoods town of Knockemstiff, Ohio appears to be made up of about a dozen residents, who are either murdering one another or havings babies. We meet some of them. Willard (Bill Skarsgård) has returned home after fighting in WWII but has come back with severe PTSD. The trauma dictates the rest of his life, including his relationship with his wife (Haley Bennett) and son Arvin. Willard’s influence on Arvin remains until the boy grows into a young man (Tom Holland). A number of supporting characters are also introduced, including Arvin’s half-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), a crooked cop (Sebastian Stan), not one but two wicked pastors (Harry Melling, Robert Pattinson), and – to top things off – a pair of serial killers (Jason Clarke, Riley Keough).
All of these characters connect in a jumble of interactions and dumb luck encounters. Ensemble productions tend to do that, such as Magnolia (1999) or Crash (2004). But in this instance the meetings feel contrived, like a six degrees of separation experiment. Almost all of them involve heinous motivations. It was difficult to care about any of the participants when they want to inflict such misery upon others. Lol Crawley’s cinematography shoots with 35mm film stock to create a grainy, grimy aesthetic. It fits the rural locales, where everyone sweats from the humidity and mud is seen everywhere. The makeup, character design, and art production create an uncomfortable tone that only increases the further we go along.
The strong performances are the saving grace. Despite not showing up until the second act, Tom Holland’s Arvin is the center of the story. A good change of pace from his more mainstream work, Holland gives us a character burdened by pain and a tragic family legacy. Arvin is the emotional lynchpin (if there is one). He tries his best to do good to those he loves, but that often means inflicting harm to others. Robert Pattinson turns in yet another idiosyncratic performance as the vile preacher. Sporting a beer gut and a weaselly accent, Pattinson’s character can easily manipulate a room to do his every bidding in the name of religion. His exaggerated gestures and cadence tip toes the line of caricature, but maybe that’s what he was going for. In a world filled with demons, his (at the very least) is the most interesting to watch.
The Devil All the Time contains an unnecessary voiceover from Pollock himself, describing onscreen action with little insight beyond that. And that’s what the whole piece ends up being – an idea with lots of potential but not executed well enough to reach it. It’s genre pulp wanting to be more. There have been plenty of other examples of this being done successfully, just see No Country for Old Men (2008) or the countless noir films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. This wants to get to that level but instead feels like a shallow, crude imitation.