Release Date: September 16, 2020
Director: Antonio Campos | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 5/10
With its terrific cast, southern Gothic appeal, and acclaimed literary source, The Devil All The Time has a natural appeal, particularly as a straight-to-Netflix premiere in an incredibly difficult and trying year for cinema.
The film opens by introducing the audience to traumatized Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård, better known as Pennywise the Clown). Willard is a WWII veteran who falls in love with the first waitress he meets, named Charlotte, (Haley Bennett) after returning stateside. Though initially resistant to devoted religious commitment due to the trauma of having witnessed a skinned and crucified man during the war, Willard begins to adopt an extreme view of sacrifice and justice, harshly enforcing it upon his son, Arvin (played as a child by Michael Banks Repeta). This leads him to increasingly escalating religious acts, many of which scar Arvin as he grows. A third of the way into the film, however, the focus shifts from Willard to Arvin (played as an adult by Tom Holland), who becomes the primary protagonist for the latter two-thirds. This is one of many narrative jumps that the film makes, all of which expose the violent and corrupt world of backwoods Appalachia in the mid-20th century. From an exploitative and rapacious Reverend Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) to a psychotic and murderous photographer and his wife (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, respectively), the entire film is full of violence begetting violence, often overlapping stories in the midst of its small town settings.
Such a wide-ranging tale has grandiose aspirations, carrying the potential to comment on everything from generational brokenness to the heartbreaking effects of trauma, and the ensemble does excellent work throughout. Holland shines in his first serious, dramatic attempt since his more jokey Spiderman appearances, and Pattinson continues his streak of impressive showings (Good Time, The Lighthouse, Tenet, etc.). Keough also shines, showing conflict in a character being forced to partake in evil deeds throughout. Despite these highlights, however, the film somehow does not add up to the sum of its parts, largely due to the inability to paint a clear thematic line through each of these disparate stories as they come together. The result feels a bit like a variety of short stories rather than a coherent narrative whole, which on its own can still make for an excellent film in the right hands (I’m looking at you, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). Yet in The Devil All The Time we often find ourselves jarred from one harrowingly violent scene to the next, forced to witness often horrifying visuals without a clear understanding of the purpose. They do their best to mask this lack of connectedness by bringing in narration throughout, but it serves only as a band-aid to cover the bigger issue: the film doesn’t know what it is trying to say.
We have seen elements of this southern thriller style wow us, even in recent Hollywood history (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood both come to mind), and so the problem certainly isn’t the content in this adaptation. It seems instead that the lack of narrative drive found within the violence itself makes it more appalling than drawing, more puzzling than thought-provoking. The result is a film that has impressive moments elevated by a terrific cast that get lost in a bloody and murderous attempt at commentary on the southeastern United States. Just as one character mentions that “Some men were born just so they could be buried,” it turns out the same is true for some movies.