In a pandemic world, we’ll accept digital releases where we can get them. Distributed by Netflix, The Devil All the Time is an exception you might wish you had watched in theaters. Not for the surround sound experience likely omitted at home or even for the opportunity to see the star-studded cast on the big screen; but because at least in a theater, you would be forced to sit through the entire thing without giving in to the urge to skip scenes or press pause.
Directed by Antonio Campos, The Devil All the Time is an unsettling thriller film adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name. The film is a story of religion, particularly the unsavory and violent extremes people take to satisfy their beliefs. It begins with Arvin Russel (Michael Banks Repeta), a young boy exposed to violence through his World War II veteran father Willard Russel (Bill Skarsgard). Later through an older and aggressive Arvin (Tom Holland), too many storylines become weaved together into one unevenly-paced endeavor.
The film immediately establishes its uneasy tone with eerie music accompanying the return of Willard after serving in the war. Although we never see him prior to his enlistment, we can infer that his service sparked his violent tendencies. After his wife becomes ill, Willard begins performing sacrificial animal ceremonies in hopes that God will save her in return. This is only the beginning of how the film brutally depicts religion and the questionable morality of the characters living their lives around their faith.
For example, one storyline veers off to follow Carl (Jason Clarke) Henderson and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough), a pair of serial killers who target male hitchhikers. Carl mentions that the only time he feels the presence of the lord is through the death of his victims which serves as a stark contrast to more common depictions of religion in film.
Even the preacher (Robert Pattinson) abuses his power by manipulating others to his own advantage in the name of God. Arvin seems to be one of the few characters with any redeeming qualities, despite being a brutal murderer and, in contrast of every other character, seemingly agnostic. Through this, the film has the power to deeply offend its viewers. It’s depiction of religion is not pretty or nice, but neither is its portrayal of humanity in general. This leaves the true meaning of the film feeling slightly unclear.
In short, the movie meshes a lot into two hours and yet still feels too slow at times. The plotting pace of the first half is treacherously slow in comparison to the climactic actions within the second; you might even wonder how you endured anything leading up to it. With this, Campos’s directing is solid but undermined by the unequal distribution of impactful storytelling.
It’s the cast performances that truly make this movie. Most people can acknowledge that Holland has been excellent in his light-hearted portrayals of Peter Parker. However, swinging around in spandex is far from the limit of his talent. He is as frightening as he is heartbreaking; his effortless transitions from an overprotective brother to a violent and misguided young man are incredibly effective.
Pattinson is right there with Holland, offering an absolute chilling performance as the corrupt Preacher Teagarden. He is beyond disturbing. His words are delivered with the perfect amount of subtlety, though never once does he downplay the character’s deep corruption. For once, fans of his might hope to see him exit the screen sooner rather than later.
Overall, The Devil All the Time seems to be loaded with straightforward messages yet lacks any big takeaways. The production quality is excellent, but the film’s purpose gets lost in translation. Sure, the intent of the movie might simply be to portray misguided religion in a dark way, but the lack of optimism in every other aspect diminishes that. It paints the wrong so vividly, but offers no solution for what’s right. It feels like one long question by the time the credits roll, where the answer is hidden far, far away; maybe someday we’ll find it.