In the picture

September 27, 2020

The lurid melodrama of The Devil All the Time underwhelms despite the efforts of its star-studded cast.

The Devil All the Time ★★ 1/2

*ing: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson

Directed by: Antonio Campos

Tagline: Everyone ends up in the same damned place.

Depravity takes centre stage in The Devil All the Time, a tale drenched in misery and violence, delivered via a sprawling cast of crooked, immoral, misguided characters. A barrel of laughs this certainly is not.

Set in mid-century Appalachia, the bleak drama weaves several depressing yarns into a meandering, exhausting narrative.

The film introduces us to Willard (Bill Skarsgard), a soldier whose horrific war experiences have left him with psychological scars that manifest themselves upon his return home and thereby impact his young son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta). Tragic circumstances eventually force Arvin to move in with his grandmother who is also raising a young girl, Lenora (Ever Eloise Landrum) – the daughter of a crazed preacher (Harry Melling) and his wife (Mia Wasikowska) – who comes with her own tragic backstory.

Along the murky road, trouble arrives in the form of a lascivious preacher (Robert Pattinson) who brings even more grief to the lives of the now-grownup Arvin (Tom Holland) and Lenora (Eliza Scanlan).

Also, lurking in the film’s periphery is a pair of serial killers (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke) who pick up and murder hitchhikers. And there’s also a corrupt sheriff (Sebastian Stan) who is investigating the glum happenings in the area. His sister happens to be one half of the aforementioned serial killer duo.

There are, in short, a lot of characters. And there is a lot of tragedy. Everyone is either hurting or getting hurt, killing or getting killed. But even though the movie buries its players under an avalanche of violence and sorrow (murder, suicide, rape, torture, cancer, even animal cruelty), the end result isn’t as affecting as it should be.
Between the many branches and the constant arc-hopping, we aren’t really given a chance to fully explore or connect with most of the characters; in the end there isn’t much reason to be invested in their stories.

There is a miniseries worth of commotion going on in The Devil All the Time without the development and depth that an episodic format could have provided the tale. As a result, this look at what should have been a complex tapestry ends up feeling reductive instead of revelatory. A post World War II setting populated by hyper-religious individuals is full of potential, but Antonio Campos’s execution does not do justice to what are, in effect, fascinating characters.

The filmmaker’s decision to cast British and Australian actors and even a Swede to play Southern roles is also curious. To their credit, the actors do what they can with what they’ve been given. Skarsgard, in particular, stands out, and Holland’s nuanced portrait adds emotional weight to his role. Pattinson’s over-the-top performance, on the other hand, often degenerates into campy, absurd hilarity. Others – like Melling and Wasikowska, and even Keough, Clark, and Stan – are there only too briefly and leave you wishing we had been given the chance to spend more time in their company, getting a better sense of their characters’ motivations and triggers.

A narrator (the voice of Donald Ray Pollock, who is the author of the novel this film is based on) with a penchant for stating the obvious also feels unnecessary and intrusive.

The Devil All the Time should have been a forceful drama about human failings. Instead we have a cheerless mess that is so single-mindedly focused on abject darkness that it fails to see the more intriguing greys and the intricacies that lie therein.

Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only
*** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection

In the picture