A film review by Craig J. Koban September 23, 2020


2020, R, 138 mins.

Tom Holland as Arvin Russell  /  Bill Skarsgård as Willard Russell  /  Riley Keough as Sandy Henderson  /  Jason Clarke as Carl Henderson  /  Sebastian Stan as Lee Bodecker  /  Haley Bennett as Charlotte Russell  /  Eliza Scanlen as Lenora Laferty  /  Mia Wasikowska as Helen Hatton  /  Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin  /  Harry Melling as Roy Laferty  /  Pokey LaFarge as Theodore  /  Donald Ray Pollock as Narrator (voice)

Directed by Antonio Campos  /  Written by Paulo and Antonio Campos, based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock


The new star studded Netflix period film THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is an impeccably acted and handsomely shot multi-decade and generational drama with a sprawling (yet sometimes too unwieldy for its own good) story that's about as unnervingly grim and violent as anything that I've seen this year.  

Based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, this Antonio Campos directed effort details the deplorably seedy comings and goings of a series of southern characters in post World War II America that dabbles into the darker underbelly of nightmarish violence, religious fervor run amok, and all of the immoral backwoods killers and innocent victims caught within this horrible web.  There's no question that THE DEVIL IN ALL THE TIME becomes almost punishing to endure the longer it progresses, not to mention that it falls shy of true greatness, but it's nevertheless a sinisterly powerful film that has stayed with me days after watching it.   

The film takes place between WWII and the outbreak of the Vietnam War and dives headfirst into multiple narrative threads involving multiple despicable personas and how some of them unavoidably coalesce together due to some truly cruel twists of fate.  One of these tormented individuals is William Russell (a creepily stellar Bill Skarsgard), who recently served in the war and is carrying with him beyond telltale signs of paralyzing PTSD.  He has returned to his home town of Knockemstiff, Ohio with ample emotional and physical scars due to the horrors of combat, but he also has a newly perverted sense of religious righteousness (which may or may not have something to do with him witnessing a service man being tortuously crucified on the battlefront).  He tries to settle down to a life of normalcy as a father and husband, marrying Charlotte (Haley Bennett) and having a child with her in Arvin (played in young form by Michael Banks Repeta).  William's faith is tested with the untimely death of Charlotte, which causes him to fall down a deep rabbit hole of spiritual fanaticism and violence, with poor little Arvin having to bare witness to it all.  William teaches Arvin the way of bloodshed and sacrifice in dealing with life's problems, which will rear up later for the lad. 

Eventually, Arvin ends up in the care of his grandmother and forms a tight bond with his stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scalan), who's also suffering like Arvin over the horrible death of her mother (Mia Wasikowska) at the hands of her zealot-like father/preacher, Roy (Harry Melling).  Grown up (now played by Tom Holland), Arvin tries to steer towards the right path in life, but the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in terms of him inflicting pain on others that have wronged him or his stepsister.  His moral code is really upended with the appearance of a new preacher arriving in town named Preston (a never more unwholesomely slimy Robert Pattinson), who uses his position and claims of a tight relationship with God to have his way with anyone...and unfortunately with Lenora, forcing Arvin on the offensive.  And just when you think THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME couldn't be any more macabre, we're also concurrently introduced to a serial killer couple in prostitute Sandy (Riley Keough) and her photographer hubby in Carl (a quietly, but intimidatingly loathsome Jason Clarke) that pick up lowly and unsure of themselves strangers and forces them to have sex with Sandy at gunpoint while Carl snaps pictures.  The victim is then murdered in the most grisly manner.  Complicating things is Sandy's brother in Sheriff Lee (Sebastian Stan), that's trying to get re-elected in his riding, but has a whole slew of issue all of his own on top of his sister being a mass murderer.   



I almost feel like I need to take a shower and emotionally decompress after having just described the multiple plot threads on display here.  On a brighter and somewhat sarcastic side, I couldn't help but notice that (a) most of the cast assembled here are Australian with some Brits thrown in to play deep south Americans and (b) so many of them have past careers playing in the super hero/sci-fi/horror genres (this film features Spider-Man, the Winter Soldier, Batman, John Connor, two Harry Potter alumni, and Pennywise the Clown).   Thankfully, Campos has a real affinity with his actors, and all of them seem to sport some thanklessly good American accents that never seem too distracting.  Plus, it's quite commendable to see this group of talented thespians deep dive commit themselves into the dreary depths that this film throws their characters into, especially when some (Holland in particular) have become more famous recently for playing kind hearted hero roles. 

And speaking of Holland, he's arguably never been better in a film than he is here tackling his character's internal ethical crisis of wanting to do the right thing, but also having to constantly deal with the many traumas of his past that have unfortunately tainted his adult life and choices.  If you want to see something as refreshingly far removed from the squeaky clean do-gooder that is Peter Parker in the MCU for Holland, then look no further here.  Skarsgard as well (much like he did in IT) shows why he's now becoming the go-to man in Hollywood for playing deranged nutjobs.  Equally chilling - if not perhaps more so - are the tandem of Keough and Clarke as their ruthless minded couple with no limits to their wickedness (Clarke here demonstrates that - when given just the right material - is one of our finest actors).  And then there is Pattinson, who seems to be performing at a whole other register from the rest of the cast, which I'm not trying to say is detrimental.  With an ultra think southern drawl (so thick that is sounds the product of another actor ADR'ing in his lines) and a reptilian charisma, Pattinson is eerily mesmerizing as this sick snake oil salesman masquerading as a just man of the cloth.  A few twists up on the performance dial and the preacher would have approached high camp, but Pattinson expertly modulates it all down just enough to showcase this man's theatrical flamboyance that hide a pure sleazeball that ruins people's lives. 

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME looks sensational as well, being one of the very few Netflix films (or any film lately, for that matter) shot on film, which gives this Gothic horror show a gritty, muddy, and lived-in texture and the type of immediacy and visual verisimilitude that it requires.  Campos' direction of the film beyond that is tricky, mostly because he has to homogenize enough material to make for a long form mini-series within less than two and half hours, but he mostly succeeds.  The themes tackled here are ambitiously vast, some of which, yes, have been tackled in far better films before it.  A lot of THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME reminded me of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (one of the most underrated dramas of the last decade) in terms on chronicling multiple generations of fractured families and men, all of the sordid details therein and how the fathers have impacted their sons.  Campos' film, though, is more about the broad scale impact that violence has in a time and place in American where many want to think never existed.  In the most unsettling way,  THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME explores the hypnotizing power that religion has when it comes to twisting people to perform acts of pure evil.  There's so much in this film to extrapolate, and it could have all come off as a lurid, B-grade soap opera, but Campos is adept enough to not allow his film to devolve to such extremes. 

Not all of this film works.  There's a voiceover track that permeates the storytelling (voiced by the writer of the source material himself in Pollock) that allows everything to sort of unfold with the language and feel of novel come to life on the screen, which does draw viewers in at times.  Regretably, the track also has this annoying tendency to over-explain elements in key scenes that's borderline exacerbating (it's at these points where not using any narrator whatsoever would have been a better option).  Plus, there's no denying that THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME will be an awfully hard endurance test for some squeamish viewers, which stems from some gut wrenching moments of shocking barbarism on top of the unrelenting moroseness of everything covered over the course of 138 minutes.  This film is simply a cavalcade of the worst pits of human misery, and will turn people off very early on.  I was thoroughly depressed and felt dirty while watching THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, but its confident filmmaking craft is unquestionable.  Plus, as mentioned, it'll take me awhile to fully shake this film, which I think is a testament to its stark effectiveness.

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