Netflix’s latest film is an obvious awards contender; it features an exceedingly talented cast firing on all cylinders, challenging “hard to watch” content, and is based on a best-selling and award-winning novel by Donald Ray Pollock. Taking its name from the source material, The Devil All the Time is a grim, violent, and weighty film that captures the brutality and sorrow of small-town rural America, specifically that of post-WWII Southern Ohio and West Virginia. Its stretched out narrative continuously shifts perspectives and jumps back and forth through time, attempting to connect the multiple storylines of its many eclectic characters, to varying degrees of success.
Directed by Antonio Campos, The Devil All the Time largely takes place in the joyless town of Knockemstiff, Ohio (yes, that’s really what it’s called). Knockemstiff, trapped in the grip of poverty and religion, serves as a stand-in for any similar place you’d find in the United States. Much like Stephen King’s infamous towns of Derry and Castle Rock, it proudly embraces its American Gothic aesthetic and atmosphere, veering far into the opposite direction of nostalgia. This is an ugly, bleak place, and the vast majority of its residents appear to be equally as foul.
It’s the home of Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a returning WWII veteran whose experiences on the battlefield have left him mentally scarred. Willard, seeking answers and stability, allows himself to fall into the cold embrace of Christianity. It serves him well at first; he settles down with a beautiful wife (Haley Bennett) and has a son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta). Willard isn’t a malicious father, but he is an aggressively tough one. In fact, the fondest time Arvin has with his father is when he’s taken on a trip to witness Willard savagely beat down a group of men who spoke ill of his wife, and that familiarity with violent revenge (or justice, if you’d like) leaves a lasting impression in Arvin’s mind.
Arvin’s mother eventually becomes gravely sick, and Willard’s desperation sends him into a religiously-charged downward spiral. Things get very bad very fast, and Arvin is left with a lifetime’s worth of trauma and repressed rage. The film jumps ahead a few years, where an older, stiffer Arvin (Tom Holland) has found a current purpose in protecting his step-sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Lenora is mercilessly bullied and shunned for being a strict and dedicated Christian, and even though Arvin is outspoken in his resentment towards religion due to what happened in his childhood, the two still rely on and love each other. But when a charismatic and predatory preacher by the name of Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) arrives in town, he threatens to upend Arvin’s life once again.
This is only one of The Devil All the Time‘s many plot lines – the nearly two and a half hour film also involves a sinister and voyeuristic traveling couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), a different but equally as eccentric preacher and his extremely unlucky wife (Harry Melling and Mia Wasikowska), and a corrupt sheriff involved in organized crime (Sebastian Stan). All of these stories intertwine with one another (as well as Arvin’s) in unexpected ways, and while there are times when the film feels too bloated, it mostly remains easy to follow. Obvious credit goes to Pollock for his novel that deftly interweaves the multiple perspectives, but this adaptation is just as impressively put together by Campos and his excellent editor, Sofía Subercaseaux. It’s an exceptional achievement to balance so many characters and their individual stories in the way that this film does.
But even with a considerably lengthy runtime, the film feels stuck in a strange purgatory of being both overlong and a bit rushed. Besides Arvin and his father, we’re not able to discern what makes any of the other characters tick. Granted, most of them are despicable creeps, but the film never goes into why these people are the way they are. The Devil All the Time rails against religion as harshly as any film probably could, but while its various characters succeed in representing the worst extremes of faith, we never get to learn how that faith turned them so wicked in the first place. The film has to move along as fast as it can to get through all of the stories it wants to tell, and it can often feel like we’re missing out on stiller moments that could’ve helped flesh out the large cast.
Luckily, whether they get hours or just a couple of minutes of screen time, the cast puts on some of the most noteworthy performances of their careers. You’ll see most of the attention going to Holland and Pattinson, but every single actor involved here is a standout, even those who have little to go off of. This is a relentlessly dour, violent and bleak film, but Campos and his powerhouse cast still manage to sneak in some slivers of morbid, almost absurd humor. Still, the overall grim mood and jarring violence is so constant that it may turn some viewers away. The film’s harshness may be part of its point, but there are moments that feel exceedingly – and unnecessarily – punishing to the point of cruelty.
The film contains a ceaseless narration by Pollock himself that introduces characters, moves the story along, and pays obvious tribute to the original novel. A fine idea in theory, but the voiceover quickly robs the film of the ability to let its scenes speak for themselves. There’s far too much telling instead of showing, and it’s especially bothersome near the film’s end when one character’s moment of catharsis is blatantly spelled out to us rather than allowing the scene and the actor to play it out in a more emotionally satisfying way. Perhaps the novel could have been better served as a mini series instead of a standalone movie.
However, for all of its flaws, The Devil All the Time still manages to be very engaging. It succeeds with its American Gothic vibe and atmosphere, its exceptional editing, and its array of scene-stealing performances. Arvin’s story is one of generational trauma and the relentless perversion of faith, and it’s a tough one to sit through. There isn’t much light at the end of this tunnel, the film makes that obvious early on, but it’s impossible to not keep rooting for Arvin as what feels like every evil force on Earth converges to corrupt and destroy him. It’s an imperfect tale, but one that’s certainly worth telling.