Even with its dynamite cast and effectively morbid atmosphere, The Devil All the Time is too bloated, shallow and wearing to make the most of its stars.
Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time is the rare film that is at once cripplingly bloated and overlong but seemingly in a great hurry to get things over with. Almost every character, be they ostensible hero, victim, outright villain, conflicted antihero, or family pet, is messily killed off earlier than you think they’d be, and not for any greater purpose that I can discern. It might work as a suspense device, ensuring the audience never really knows who’s safe, but in a story teetering so precariously on a pile of contrivances and coincidences, nobody is safe from its whims anyway.
Campos and his brother Paulo have adapted The Devil All the Time from Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel. (Pollock himself narrates, as it happens, in what is clearly a device to help make the process smoother.) It’d be complicated if it wasn’t built so explicitly on archetypes and clichés. Its most subversive twist isn’t even anything to do with the material – it’s that all the fixtures of its authentic period Southern milieu are played by European or Australian actors, and you’d never guess if you didn’t already know. It’s easy to wish that they had more to do than cater to a shop-worn plot that loosely connects Coal Creek, Virginia with the aptly-named Knockemstiff, Ohio, by a series of events, characters, and themes.
Our introduction to this post-war backwoods is Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), back from the South Pacific where a skinned and crucified soldier shook his good Christian faith. At home, he meets Charlotte (Haley Bennet), a diner waitress, marries her pretty much instantly, and fathers a child with her. As Willard, thanks to a series of traumas, slips deeper and more obsessively into his rediscovered religion, his young son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta), becomes witness to a great deal of awfulness before he is eventually orphaned and left in the care of his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and his Uncle Earskell (David Atkinson), who raise him alongside Lenora (Ever Elouise Landrum), the similarly-orphaned daughter of the nutcase local preacher, Roy (Harry Melling).
This is only part of the story. Eventually, Arvin and Lenora grow up into Tom Holland and Eliza Scanlen, and around that point their stories, having previously leaped around between different times and locations, form a mostly linear narrative that includes crossover appearances from murderous married sex photographers Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), Sandy’s corrupt Sheriff brother Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), and the wonderfully-named Preston Teagardin, another predatory and weirdly pot-bellied preacher played with great relish by Robert Pattinson, who once again turns up halfway through a Netflix movie and ostentatiously walks off with it.
A criticism that emerged when the first spate of reviews ran was that The Devil All the Time didn’t have a sense of humor, and it was promptly mocked by the all-knowing gatekeepers of Film Twitter for being a ridiculous thing to expect from a Southern Gothic tale of relentless misery and religious fanaticism. But having watched the film I kind of see the logic behind that criticism, since it deals in such broad stereotypes and themes – rural America having an uncomfortable relationship with religion isn’t exactly blistering critique – that it’d have much more to say if it weren’t playing so straight.
As things stand, the Brothers Campos try to adapt material ill-suited to a feature film by leaning on easily-recognized ideas – the compromised holy man (two of them!), the scarred war veteran, the self-serving lawman, the deranged killers, the remorseful avenger – as signposts dotted around a needlessly stretched-out time-hopping narrative. None of the structural quirks really contribute much to the overall arcs of the narrative or the characters; it’s the kind of self-aggrandizing, showy filmmaking that tends to grate, and there’s altogether too much of it across a tortuously bloated 138-minute runtime. Ultimately, the thin characters are offered up as ritual sacrifice to the genre Gods, but The Devil All the Time proves they’re rarely paying attention.
The Devil All the Time releases globally on Netflix September 16.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.