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The Devil All the Time

Dept. of Unrelenting Misery


If you are in the mood for 138 minutes of relentless misery, then The Devil All the Time might be the movie for you. If all you’re looking for is an ensemble of unforgiving characters, with little to no redeeming qualities, all of whom are seemingly trapped in the hell that is other people, then this adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 debut novel might just float your boat. For everyone else, however, this depraved and violent slice of mid-western America might just be too much of too little.

Everyone you meet in this movie is utterly unremarkable. They’re average people, from nowhere special, each one broken in their own way. This is the story of their stories, but it is told in a way that is so punishing, that is so inthrall with despair, that it ends up saying nothing at all.

Which is odd. Given how riveting Pollock’s novel is, and how faithful Antonio Campos has been in adapting it, I wasn’t expecting this much to be lost in translation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tom Holland as Arvin Russell in The Devil All the Time.

Set shortly after the Second World War, The Devil All the Time concerns itself with multiple, threaded narratives in the nowhere towns of Coal Creek and Knockemstiff (yes, it’s a real place). There’s the disturbed war veteran and his damaged son, the husband and wife who are serial killers, a corrupt local sheriff, a false preacher, and a sinister minister. God is also omnipresent throughout this narrative, where the various manipulations of organised religion are thrown into sharp relief.

The Devil All the Time is a movie of predators and preys, with each one claiming to be in service of God. They’re either trying to make sense of his plans, or convince themselves, and others, that they’re doing his bidding.

Everyone here is either a sinner or a victim, or some tragic consequence of both those things. And if there is one overarching truth that this movie is trying to get at, it is that religion is both compelling and controlling, and that it is nearly impossible to distinguish the truly pious from the hideously evil.

Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin in The Devil All the Time.

All of the stories in this movie are happening in their own time, and Campos tries to string them together in as literary a manner as possible. He goes back and forth, looping in and out of his narrative, taking it off in different directions, and focussing on different characters. There are times when it feels like chapters in a novel. There are times when it feels like an anthology of loosely connected stories. It is unfortunate, however, that the end result is a movie with no real focus.

Tom Holland’s Arvin is supposed to be our anchor, and yet, the narrative structure that Campos has imposed on the movie keeps pulling us away and distracting us from his plight. Too many times, the visceral impact of a scene is undercut by a hasty shift to someone else’s story.

Jason Clarke and Riley Keough as as Carl and Sandy Henderson in The Devil All the Time.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great “moments” here, they are lurid and brutal, they are brought to life by some well studied performances, and punctuated by the sheer beauty of Campos’ imagery.

Tom Holland is masterful in channeling his history of violence. Harry Melling is all fire and brimstone. And Robert Pattinson, with just the right amount of smarm, slime, and sleaze, proves why he is one of the most versatile actors of his generation.

But it just isn’t enough. Because we don’t get to know any of these characters. Not really. All of them are drawn and defined by what’s happened to them as opposed to who they are. And while there is some truth to how we are, all of us, the sum total of our experiences, it is impossibly exhausting when victimhood is the primary defining characteristic.

There is such a coldness to the way this story is told that I found myself unable to connect with anyone in this movie. I felt like a passive observer, watching a group of incredibly talented actors, desperately reaching for an Oscar. (Or at least a nomination.)

Bill Skarsgård and Haley Bennett as  Willard and Charlotte Russell in The Devil All the Time.

The thing I enjoyed most about Pollock’s novel was that it had a real hardboiled quality to it. I couldn’t help but fall in love with his words. They were sparse yet descriptive. His people and places sharply, yet economically, defined. Just look at how he writes of Arvin and Willard’s town: “Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity for another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance.” In just 32 words, he manages to create a sense of place, telling us everything we need to know about where we were and just who we were dealing with.

The movie isn’t nearly as cool. It is, instead, so radically pessimistic that it left me feeling nothing. It was such a slog that it left me tired and bored. The novel was – and this isn’t a comparison that I invoke lightly – one part Coen Brothers and one part Terrence Malick. This movie, on the other hand, by merely embellishing Pollock’s words with pretty pictures, ends up looking and sounding like a pale imitation.

The Devil All the Time
138 minutes
Director: Antonio Campos
Writers: Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, and Robert Pattinson

The Devil All the Time is now streaming on Netflix.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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