At what point does a film wind up being too depressing to appreciate? Can you be captivated by something that’s also wildly off-putting? Netflix’s latest offering The Devil all the Time is an interesting case study in this. While it’s an undeniably well made hybrid action/crime drama, it’s mostly a punishing experience to sit through. Not because it’s bad, either, but because none of the characters endure anything but hardship. You can count the smiles in this movie on a single hand. That doesn’t immediately signal a problem, but when a filmmaker asks the audience to take in nearly two hours and two minutes of pain, it’s a big ask. They need to offer up something more. In the case of filmmaker Antonio Campos, he asks for more than he can deliver.
The Devil All the Time is a depiction of devotion, both religious and also just to what’s right. It’s also a portrait of brutality, corruption (sometimes of a religious nature), sadism, and suffering. Beyond even the high body count, there’s just a pile of pain here that stacks a mile high. Depressing cinema has its place, with some offerings being legitimate classics. Here, it’s just a matter of if the juice is worth the squeeze or not. For yours truly, it wasn’t, and it likely won’t be a minority opinion, either.
For what it’s worth, this is a review that does wobble between being a positive or negative one. Ultimately, it falls more so on the latter field, but an audience’s mileage may vary on it. For example, why did this all bug me more than any SAW outing? For whatever reason, there’s a sour taste in my mouth, and I’d be lying to myself and all of you if I didn’t put it forward.
Taking place over about two decades (from the end of World War II until the Vietnam War in the 1960s) in small Ohio and West Virginia towns, this is a portrait of strange and violent people. Some are scarred by life, like Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), who saw awful things in the war, then came home to slowly become a hardcore religious fundamentalist, drawn to extreme forms of devotion when his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) is stricken with cancer. His son Arvin Eugene Russell (Tom Holland as an adult) sees it all, quietly taking it in as a lad. As an adult, he’ll utilize the lessons in a very specific way. While that more or less represents the main plot point, there’s also time spent with husband-and-wife serial killers Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough), who blaze a carnage yet art-filled path across the country. They’re just some of the characters who populate this world, though they all don’t come together until Arvin becomes a man.
Now grown, Arvin still lives in the shadow of violence. While Carl and Sandy continue to kill, Arvin’s morals and violent tendencies put him on a collision course with a preacher named Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). As he pursues justice against the vile man of the faith, a cop turned sheriff named Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) looms large in his past, as well as his immediate future. As you might imagine, all of these encounters lead to bloodshed, as seems to be the way for all in these small towns.
From top to bottom, this is a well-acted picture. Whatever flaws The Devil all the Time may have, the cast is not one of them. Nobody truly has a ton of screen time, as the narrative bounces around between all of the characters, but each stand out in their own ways. Whether it’s the quiet righteousness of Tom Holland, the fundamentalism of Bill Skarsgård, the hypocrisy of Robert Pattinson, or the sadistic streak in Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, they each take their parts and dive right in. They feel lived in and raw, which makes all of the awful events they each endure all the worse to bear witness to, deserved or not. Alongside other, less utilized, players like Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Sebastian Stan, and Mia Wasikowska, everyone is all-in on the premise, that’s for sure. If there’s a disappointment, it’s that odder characters like the ones played by Clarke and Keough aren’t given enough room to breathe.
Co-writer/director Antonio Campos, alongside co-writer Paulo Campos, do their best to keep you invested. However, the bleakness and the filth on display via Campos and cinematographer Lol Crawley, just wears you down. Plus, there’s the choice to have the book’s author, Donald Ray Pollock, narrate the movie. It’s lyrical and hypnotic at some points, though distracting at others. Much like the rest of the picture, it’s a mixed bag that leaves you unsure how to feel. Factor in Campos being unable to pace this particularly well, leaving the third act somehow almost like an afterthought, and it’s hard to muster up too much enthusiasm here.
For some, this will be too miserable a cinematic experience to endure. For others, they’ll be able to get on its dour wavelength and find things to appreciate. Personally, it just became one punishing moment after another, until it was all too much. Whether it was an unnecessary dog death (a pet peeve of mine, no pun intended), the ease with which characters are dispatched, or the overarching sense that there was no hope here, it just leaves one with a dirty feeling. Any individual aspect isn’t a dealbreaker and has long been a part of some great flicks. Together, however, it just doesn’t fully work here.
At the end of the day, The Devil all the Time isn’t hard to appreciate, even if it may prove impossible to love. For me, that didn’t add up to something I could go ahead and recommend. If you disagree give it a look on Netflix. At the very least, you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into.