The Devil All the Time (Film Review)
PLOT: In remote Knockemstiff, Ohio post-WW2, a group of disparate characters find their lives intersecting in increasingly violent, gruesome ways.
REVIEW: I’m quite eager to see what the average Netflix viewer is going to make of Antonio Campos’ THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. Sporting a queue friendly cast that includes no less than three superhero actors (Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan, and Robert Pattinson), this sprawling southern gothic tale, which is based on the acclaimed novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who narrates the film), plays out like Cormac McCarthy wrote an exploitation film. Within thirty-minutes, several of the top-billed leads are dead, there have been two crucifixions (one of them being an unlucky dog) and enough beatings to fill a whole mess of Burt Reynolds moonshine flicks. It would be trashy fun (similar to Lee Daniels’ camp classic THE PAPERBOY) were it not so deadly serious, although this earnestness is compelling in its own way.
Certainly, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME feels like one of those movies that could only ever be made by a company like Netflix as it’s very much an acquired taste and guaranteed to offend just about everyone. Yet, it’s often stunningly well-acted by the leads, all of whom seem to be having fun playing deliciously against type. The eclectic ensemble cast is led by Bill Skarsgard and Tom Holland, who are the closest things we get to protagonists, with the former being a haunted vet trying to find God and happiness in the increasingly grim Knockemstiff. Anyone who knows him mostly as Pennywise from IT will be impressed by Skarsgard’s leading man performance, with him quite credible as the family man trying to leave violence behind him, but capable of exploding into an unhinged rage if pushed.
Yet, it’s Holland who reinvents himself. While we still see him as a juvenile leads thanks to SPIDER-MAN, who’s still a high-schooler, in reality, he’s in his twenties and takes well to this harder-edged part. His character is an orphan trying to protect his naive adopted sister (Eliza Scanlen) from an unseemly preacher, played with a kind of Elvis-like verve by Robert Pattinson as his scummy best. While relatively short, I find he has a kind of little tough guy, James Cagney-esque vibe about him, where you believe him beating the snot out of guys that tower over him. He’s plucky and has the best sounding accent – to my uneducated ears anyway.
The rest of the cast is a rogues gallery of tentpole actors relishing the opportunity to get gritty, with Sebastian Stan sporting a big gut as a sleazy, corrupt sheriff, while his gorgeous sister (Riley Keough) is one half of a serial-killing couple, with Jason Clarke as her sweaty, demented hubby. Then there’s Mia Wasikowska as a dangerously naive churchgoer, while Harry Potter’s Harry Melling seems keen on reinventing himself as a character actor, playing a fire-and-brimstone spouting preacher.
Indeed, the cast is uniformly excellent. However, episodic story-telling means that outside of Holland’s character, it hard to get too invested in anyone as their screen time is limited. Sebastian Stan in particular has too little of a role considering in many ways he’s the morally compromised center the whole town revolves around. Campos also seems slavishly devoted to his source material, with the narration ultimately feeling extraneous. Technically the film is pretty impeccable, although perhaps Donald Ray Pollock’s imagery is too glamorous at times given how hardscrabble life in this town is.
In the end, this leaves THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME a fascinating but flawed curio. It’s too strange and well-acted to dismiss, but it lacks the extra push that could have made it unforgettable southern noir. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining and worth watching.