Let’s Watch: The Devil All The Time
Not for the faint of heart, a visually stunning movie that gets lost in it’s devilish premises, and could’ve taken less than all the time.
The latest movie release from Netflix is the star-studded adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel “The Devil All The Time”. Directed by Antonio Campos (Christine, Simon Killer, Afterschool) who found success amongst critics and the film festival circuit in his previous works, his latest project was received with lukewarm reviews from critics, while charming and impressing audiences. With a cast consisting of Tom Holland (Spider-Man, Uncharted), Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Logan Lucky, I, Tonya), Bill Skarsgård (IT, Deadpool 2, Hemlock Grove), Robert Pattinson (Tenet, The Lighthouse, The Batman), and Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, expectations were very high. Maybe too high.
“The Devil All The Time” explores themes of violence, religion, corruption, and morality. It does so by providing various interconnected arcs. While the movie does get a bit convoluted at times, it succeeds in delivering a satisfying conclusion to all stories it proposes to tell. The art direction, cinematography, sound design, and acting are impeccable, this movie is beautiful. Everything feels perfectly placed and thought out, but somehow all stories are forgettable and unremarkable. The movie tries too hard with gore, brutality, and shocking imagery, granted some of the scenes will be imprinted in my mind forever, but after a while, I wasn’t sure I was watching a story unfold anymore, I wasn’t locked in witnessing a thriller, I was staring at what felt like an endless parade of savagery without substance to justify it.
All the characters display acts of barbarity, wrongdoing, sadism, and wickedness throughout the movie, on the surface they are moved by selfishness, but on a deeper level, the thrill of their evil deeds is what makes the characters feel alive. We get to see a tormented father, a delusional priest, an abusive reverend, a serial-killing snuff-filming couple, a corrupt cop, and a son that bears the sins of the father. Biblical and religious references, symbolism, scenery, and dialogue surround this movie every second of the way, as it showcases the faith of small-town America and the abuse of power that came with it. Overall, we get overtures and portrayals of themes explored in the Old Testament, I’m not an expert so I won’t delve deeper into it, but it’s impossible to review this movie without the obvious references to the problem of evil, vengeance, sinfulness, the virtue of faith and lastly the opportunity of redemption.
Bill Skarsgård with the little screen time he has becomes one of the most remarkable characters. His character Willard Russell, a World War II veteran displays a tormented man that has a love/hate relationship with religion, he clearly displays a lack of faith after witnessing the atrocities of man during the war, but he conveniently returns to faith when desperate and hopeless, he also has a very loose take on justice and the greater good. While he was a good son, father, soldier, and person, his anger issues and problems were amplified by the war. And his inability to deal with it takes him on a path where he ended up doing awful things for motives he thought noble but were selfish at the end.
Playing Arvin Russell (Willard’s son), Tom Holland gets the chance to flex his thespian origins and deliver an amazing performance. Seeing his religious father go down a dark path he renounces religion, Arvin is an inherently good person that is forced to face “the devil all the time”, from a very young age. Like his father, he always acts against evil and injustice, in equally cruel ways, but unlike his father, he does not do it for selfishness, but for his love of his family, and others. Still, amongst the bad things his character performs we always see justice, and an attempt of justification for his acts.
Arvin is also one of the only characters that relies on his sense of morality instead of religion. He easily empathizes and sets aside his convictions as a display of love, even sitting in prayer, and attending church with his family to make them happy, he also provides them solace by sharing his perception of the family’s worth, virtues, and accomplishments even when the family itself doesn’t find that validation in prayer or church. Selfless and doing everything out of a place of good, a place of love, one could argue he is the protagonist of the story, Arvin serves as the perfect example of being born good but being corrupted by the unnaturalness of civilization as described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Honorable mention for Robert Pattinson who plays Preston Teagardin, and further confirms what we’ve known all along, Pattinson is an amazing, amazing, actor. World renowned dialect coach Erik Singer praised most of Pattinson’s accent, except for the opening monologue, but for me it was just too distracting and over the top, I felt like he couldn’t do a southern accent to save his life, but hey I’m no world renowned coach dialect. Regardless of the accent, the amount of detail, creepiness, and gravitas that he brought to the character is astounding, it’s easy to say that he steals the scene whenever he shows up.
I honestly feel like if I keep analyzing all characters in-depth this will start to look like a case study, so I’ll sum it up by saying that everyone is excellent in the movie, the acting is on point. Nonetheless, the female characters are not particularly well written, and yes the story does not revolve around them, but the actresses deserved more to work with instead of the run-of-the-mill southern personas we’ve seen countless times from Hollywood.
In the end, we are left with amazing performances and a movie that will provoke reflection on our concepts of morality, righteousness, faith, and the impact of religion on our society (both good & evil). Foreshadowed by Skarsgård’s character the movie displays the devil all the time, and I mean ALL the time, which makes the movie predictable, because every time there’s a chance for something bad to happen, it does. We get to witness good being done for wicked reasons, evil being done by the sake of evil, and evil being done in the name of love, but we don’t get to witness a moment of purity and genuine good in the movie.
The movie relies heavily on the juxtaposition of themes like good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, life, and death, while philosophically and morally appealing themes, I failed to perceive the uniqueness in their approach surrounding the topics. Repeatedly making the audience face the same dualities over and over, is what made the movie a little tiring and superfluous. We have to make giant assumptions and leaps about the movie’s intentions on exploring such delicate and powerful themes, to try and convince ourselves that this movie is something more than simply ordinary.
The Devil All The Time succeeds in provoking, shocking, and keeping viewers entertained, but fails to provide a breathtaking story to accompany its magnificent display of filmmaking and acting.