In The Devil All the Time, it would seem that director Antonio Campos had assembled all the makings of a great film: A wildly talented, if not necessarily all A-list cast; well-regarded source material in the 2011 Donald Ray Pollock novel of the same name and a story rooted in universal themes about doing the right thing and conquering evil. However, what Campos – who co-wrote the film with Paulo Campos – delivers is a supremely grim take on the world that works better as a showcase for its actors than as the violent slice of life movie too obsessed with 1950s Americana and southern religiosity to deliver a satisfying story. The Devil All the Time is a slow, sprawling thriller, unfurling with creeping tension, but the cast’s performances are more rewarding than the story.
Set against the backdrop of rural towns in Ohio and West Virginia across the 50s and 60s, The Devil All the Time follows multiple people through their lives, as their stories connect in various, sometimes surprising ways. There’s war veteran Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), whose religion pushes him to violent acts when his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) falls sick with cancer. Their son, Arvin (Tom Holland), winds up with his grandmother, who’s also taken in young Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) when her parents – Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and Roy (Harry Melling) disappear. Elsewhere, the film also follows serial killers Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough) as well as the corrupt Sheriff Lee Boedecker (Sebastian Stan). When a new preacher, Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), arrives in town, it sets Arvin on a path that has him hurtling toward other figures in the story.
Like many movies adapted from books, The Devil All the Time suffers from a specific kind of pacing wherein the film moves too fast sometimes as it tries to hit all the necessary plot points, but too slow in others, when Campos truly digs into a scene and the actors get a chance to really showcase their talents. Add in the fact that The Devil All the Time jumps around from one character to another, with only Pollock’s voiceover to offer a connective thread (which is much easier to follow in a book than in a film), and Campos delivers a movie that is, at its best, like watching a novel come alive, and at its worst, a confusing mess of story threads that can be hard to follow. The overwrought plot and characters are at least interesting enough, and Campos’ ability to build the tension of movie – with the occasional, violent stopgap – will keep viewers compelled to watch, but the limp conclusion may also leave them wondering if the journey was worth it.
What really makes The Devil All the Time worth the two hours and 18-minute runtime are the performances of the cast, particularly Holland and Pattinson. The actors are magnetic in their own right, Holland as the ferociously just Arvin and Pattinson as the sleazy narcissistic preacher. But when the two actors share a scene at the start of the third act, it’s positively crackling with energy. Their performances combined with Campos’ skilfull touch at ratcheting up the tension creates the most memorable display of talent in the film. It’s enough to wish The Devil All the Time gave more time to Holland and Pattinson’s characters, instead of following others through their stories. Certainly, there’s enough for many of the other stars to showcase their talents, particularly Stan and Skarsgård, but they are each given considerably less material to work with. Ultimately, The Devil All the Time feels spread a little too thin for a movie, even if the actors are making the most of it.
In the end, The Devil All the Time isn’t necessarily an enjoyable watch, with a number of especially violent visuals and emotionally brutal story beats that serve to break up by the tension of expecting another awful thing to happen next. With the slow, stunted pacing of the movie, it makes for an especially tedious and bleak viewing experience, offering an almost too cynical view of the world. There are moments that work to lighten up the film, but they’re few and far between, leaving The Devil All the Time to sink back into its grim darkness. Altogether, the movie feels overlong and though the performances are wonderfully delivered by the cast, The Devil All the Time offers little other reason for viewers to slog through its over-two-hour runtime.
As a result, The Devil All the Time is worth checking out for those already decided they want to give the Netflix movie a shot. Certainly, fans of Holland and Pattinson – as well as any other member of the cast – will be treated to compelling performances that are worth seeing. And thanks to the accessibility of Netflix, even those unsure on the movie can give it a shot without the commitment of purchasing a ticket and seeing it in a theater; those looking for something new as new movies are still few and far between may also find something to like in The Devil All the Time. But it’s by no means a must-see movie and for those uninterested in anything The Devil All the Time has to offer, this is one Netflix movie they can skip. The Devil All the Time may have had all the potential with its talent, source material and themes, but this southern gothic thriller is too grim and tedious to be enjoyable.
The Devil All the Time is now streaming on Netflix. It is 138 minutes long and rated R for violence, bloody/disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language throughout.
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