The Devil All the Time review – eerie Southern Gothic moves in circles
Antonio Campos' adaptation of the acclaimed novel features fine work from Robert Pattinson but is messy, overlong, and repetitive
Antonio Campos has added yet another bloody examination of disturbed psyches to his expanding canon: a swirling tapestry of saints, sinners, freaks, oddballs, and religious nuts converging in America's Bible Belt in the aftermath of World War II. His adaptation of The Devil All the Time is a self-conscious and overstuffed exploration of family and faith, aiming to land somewhere between Cormac McCarthy and the Coens. It never gets close to the genius of either, though it does have atmosphere to boot and some interesting performances to its name.
The setting is Ohio and West Virginia in the 1940s. Willard Russell (a haunted Bill Skarsgård) has returned home from the war in search of a peaceful life. But he's also burdened by his nightmarish experiences on the front, presented via terrifying flashbacks that seemed plucked right out of a horror movie. Is the answer to Willard's salvation in prayer? Family? Justice?
Before long, Campos' script – co-written with his brother Paolo – picks up further storylines, moving between them – and the years – to paint a picture of a booze-soaked, fly-addled community in the midst of a moral crisis. Riley Keogh and Jason Clarke play two serial killers who get their kicks taking lewd photographs before dispatching their victims; Mia Wasikowska is the put-upon wife to Harry Melling's psychotic husband, whose arrival in church with a jar of spiders sets the tone for the unpleasantness to come.
After tragedy strikes, the timeline jumps forward into the 50s – and later the '60s – as we follow Willard's grown-up son, Arvin (Tom Holland). A polite young man, he's also inherited his father's lust for violence and a sense that the world around him is a terrible place (the movie makes no counterargument). If the film has one narrative through-line, it manifests out of Arvin's appetite for vengeance. As he moves through the dank and squalor to find only sin and corruption at every turn, things come to a head when a charlatan preacher, played with campy conviction by Robert Pattinson, targets Arvin's school-age step-sister (Eliza Scanlen).
Cinema has often made use of a particular, unnerving atmosphere inherent to the post-war South – a sense of mounting evil that is captured effectively with visual panache by Campos and his production team, especially in the film's first half. The Devil All the Time – pulpy but trying not to be – also attempts to add literary weight via a dominant narration from Donald Ray Pollack, who penned the original novel. All the while he's on hand to paint in the characters' motivations, but what might have seemed more fascinating in its ambiguity on the page comes over a little flat.
The characters in The Devil All the Time, Pollack tells us, are driven by faith – a desire to get as close to God as possible, no matter the cost (murder, we quickly discover, is not out of the equation). The film's title, meanwhile, refers to man's ongoing battle with temptation: everyone here is just a nudge away from total destruction, should they allow the devil to take hold (and most of them do). Sadly, that's about as deep as the characterisation goes.
Tom Holland is surprisingly effective playing against type as the reluctant protagonist doomed to repeat the sins of his father, while Keogh impresses in a small part as a reluctant killer of men. Of all the performances here, though, it's Robert Pattinson who steals the film as pot-bellied preacher Preston Teagardin, his campy, drawl-heavy turn bringing life back to proceedings whenever things get too slow. Is anyone else doing such consistently interesting and versatile work in such minor parts?
“Some people were born just so they can be buried,” explains Sebastian Stan's burly sheriff, who turns up in one of the film's more unnecessary strands. The film is a testament to these words – perhaps to a fault. Scenes of excessive violence and bloodshed are never but a few minutes away, yet as more and more deaths pile on, the overall impact is lessened. Eventually The Devil All the Time begins to feel like a broken record, circling around and reprising the same beats until all that’s left is a sense of a film that's an hour too long.
There is a strange feeling of The Devil of the Time being both excessive and underwritten at the same time – too much happening, but not nearly enough going on below the surface. Frustrating, too, are moments when the narrative doubles back on itself, contributing to an overall sense of shapelessness, while its relentless mistreatment of female characters, who for the most part are only here to be slaughtered or abused, quickly begins to grate.
Does it add up to anything? It's hard to take much away from a film with such a bleak worldview, while the individual stories, relying on a Pulp Fiction-like narrative convergence, never give way to the clever reveals or twists you'd expect. These macabre tales might come together, but never in a way that feels meaningful or preordained, like fates being drawn together to convey some higher truth. Instead Campos has given us something with a distinct look and feel but little reason to care.
The Devil All the Time is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch