The Devil All the Time is an engrossing gothic tale full of backwoods preachers, thrill killers, religious zealots, and a handful of broken, weathered souls that cannot come to grips with the horrors of war that religion could not wash clean.
This second opinion of The Devil All the Time is spoiler-free. You can read our original review by clicking these words.
There is a lot to like about Anthony Campos’s adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s post-war gothic tale, The Devil All the Time. The story is rich with characters and side stories, just like a savory and plentiful gravy that’s topped off with a cracked half of a buttery West Virginia biscuit. This film is full of backwoods preachers, thrill killers, religious zealots, and a handful of broken, weathered souls that cannot come to grips of the horrors of war that religion could not wash away clean (and that turned into paranoia). This adaptation has the devil in the details.
This backwoods tale starts with a returning soldier, Willard Russell (It’s Bill Skarsgard), looking forward to making a life for himself with a bleeding-heart waitress named Charlotte (Swallow’s Haley Bennett). Willard’s path crosses with a photographer (Jason Clarke) and his new girlfriend, Sandy (Riley Keough), who do, uh, everything together. Sandy’s brother, Lee (Avenger’s Sebastian Stan), doesn’t like their lifestyles and is a local cop in town. Meanwhile, Willard visits his aunt and sits next to Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a woman who lost her entire family to a fire. She is overcome with enlightenment from God, as she begs an inept Reverend (The Old Guard’s Harry Melling) to bless her — his character seems to think he is something special from the result, most likely, of every kid getting a trophy no matter how they finish. Finally, you have stepsiblings Arvin (Tom Holland) who is very protective of his sister, Lenora (Babyteeth’s Eliza Scanlen), who has her eye on a yuppy preacher man, Preston (Robert Pattinson).
Surely, the devil is in the details, and that’s what makes adapting works like Pollock’s such high-wire act. The sheer volume of interesting characters and various storylines makes for a tall order, but he manages to thread the needle, it not nicking a finger or two (for instance, Stan’s character’s storyline is convoluted, there is an overtly overused narration with too much personality). He does a wonderful job of capturing the source material’s transitions from storyline to storyline, no matter the time they take place in.
What helps is the tremendous volume of actors Campos collected, and with the possible exception of Pattinson’s wildly disjointed preacher man (and atrocious accent), it’s even more impressive how no one else was miscast or ego had gotten in the way. Tom Holland is a standout here as a young man navigating his way through life and loss. Scanlen is becoming a real chameleon, unrecognizable at first glance, and is building a quietly impressive filmography. Then you have Bill Skarsgard, whose deployed World War Two veteran Willard Russell sets the dark ominous tone of the film by the end of its first act.
Many will say this is a southern gothic tale, and I have seen many say that, but it leans more towards new American gothic. Many of the characters are broken and give into madness, falling into irrational behaviors instead of rational ones. You could argue the point being made here is that post-war humans started the devolution of the species and the deconstruction of the American family.
Overall, Devil will rub many the wrong way with its deliberately patient pace and an occasional shocking visual or two. The film works as a crime saga, though not as hard-boiled as the creators hoped for (also, does every post-war era film need to feature the song, “Wheel of Fortune”?). Still, with a plethora of standout performances, a strong sense of time and place, and an intriguing narratives make The Devil All the Time an engrossing experience.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.