“The Devil All the Time” (2020) Review

Dir. Antonio Campos; Tom Holland, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough
[1.5 out of 4 stars] 

“Some people were born just so they could be buried,” says Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) toward the end of Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time (2020). Bodecker’s words remind me of ones spoken by Tommy Lee Jones’s character at the beginning of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007). “The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure,” says Sheriff Ed Tom. Both films are dark, gritty thrillers. Both deal with similar themes: inexplicable violence plaguing small towns in the American heartland; crises of faith; generational struggles. But Campos’s film feels contrived and unnecessary. Nearly every character ends up bleeding in the woods. Many seem to be brought on stage just to be killed off, leading me to wonder if Bodecker’s words are less of a profound statement about life and death and more of a meta-comment about the film’s weak storytelling. 

Worse still, for a film populated by so many characters and so much violence, The Devil All the Time is remarkably boring. Families drift between two small towns in West Virginia and Ohio; some leave, most come back. There’s potential for a fascinating study of the American psyche here, but we’re instantly bogged down by shallow, one-scene characters who all resemble each other (likely a fault with the casting, but perhaps this is meant to show the results of decades of inbreeding?). We get too many flashbacks, flashforwards, and unhelpful voiceovers; too many symbols and themes. It’s like a really bad Faulkner novel. 

Too much happens for me to attempt a linear summary, so I’ll stick to introducing the principal characters and their motivations. We begin with Willard  (Bill Skarsgård), a World War II vet who takes his PTSD-induced frustrations out on his family. After seeing a fellow marine be crucified (yes, literally, and we see the body), he develops a complicated relationship with Christianity, one that focuses on suffering and sacrifice. When he’s unable to save his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) from cancer, he kills his son’s dog and himself, leaving his nine-year-old young son Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) to deal with the pain. Skarsgård plays this part well; we can see the pain in his eyes, but this introduction takes 45 minutes when it could have been cut to five. 

For some reason, the film then focuses on Willard’s son, Arvin, who turns out to be the least interesting of all the people we meet. While the first 45 minutes of the film set up the trauma he experienced as a kid, when Tom Holland finally takes over from his nine-year-old self (I actually vastly preferred Repeta to Holland here), the character quickly loses any nuance. Holland plays him with a scowl, one that’s clearly meant to show us his inner turmoil. But there’s no development: from the moment we meet him as a teenager, Arvin’s whole personality is wrapped up in the angry-white-boy energy of a school shooter, so it’s really no surprise when much of the film’s blood ends up on his hands. Arvin loves his step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who is preyed upon by the others because of her piousness. He’s angry and confused about his dad. He gets scared and angry and acts out. That’s about it. 

Meanwhile, there’s the far more interesting and perverted Bonnie-and-Clyde story of Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl (Jason Clarke). Carl gets off by taking photos of his wife with dead bodies, so the two trick young men into following them into the woods and then kill them. Together, Keough and Clarke manage to pull off the best chemistry and acting in the film. Clarke, reminiscent here of Michael Madsen, stands out, but it’s hard to tell if this is to his credit, or to his co-stars’ faults. Keough shows the most emotional range, probably because Sandy is forced to put on a show for their victims, seducing them while Carl readies the camera. These performances/murders invite comparisons to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), but again, we are left with the question: why do they happen? We never do find out, except for a very unconvincing voiceover explanation: “Only in the presence of death could [Carl] feel the presence of something like God.” 

Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, turns in one of the worst performances I’ve seen recently, playing the sanctimonious Rev. Preston Teagardin. His accent is horrendous – imagine Daniel Craig’s drawl in Knives Out (2019) but without the humor (maybe stop casting British actors to play rural Americans?). He makes a series of inexplicably random facial expressions, as if his face had been numbed and he’s trying to remember how to move it. This is made all the worse by the fact that Pattinson seems to be trying really, really hard. In one ostensibly dramatic sermon about the Devil’s “delusions” – a moment that could have had the emotional force of Paul Dano’s sermons in There Will Be Blood (2007) – Pattinson’s twitches and ridiculous pronunciations actually made me laugh out loud. 

Violence and faith bind these characters to each other, and Campos seems to suggest that the two are inextricably linked. Preston, for instance, abuses his power to gain sexual favors from the pious and naive Lenora, and then convinces her that her memories are the Devil’s “delusions.” Carl and Sandy convince young men to follow them into the woods by quoting the Bible. In a startling earlier scene, another preacher kills his wife and then attempts to resurrect her in a failed auto-da-fé. At times, Campos seems to be suggesting that the problem is not faith itself, but faith in human beings rather than in the religion they preach. (One would, after all, have a hard time claiming that Preston or Carl are true messengers of God). But again, there’s no real understanding of why these characters need to be in the same film, or even why their faith leads them to murder. Sure, they’re woven together by violence, but only because someone wrote it that way. 

The plot isn’t helped much by the almost continuous narration. On the one hand, there are so many characters that you need notepaper to keep track of them – at least ten nearly-indistinguishable white men with varying degrees of old-timey accents and Protestantism parade across the screen – and on the other hand, we get an incessant and unnecessary explanation of seemingly random interior thoughts. When Arvin shoots the sheriff (but not the deputy), the camera freezes for a moment, implying a suspension of time. In a voiceover, we hear: “Though it seemed to Arvin as if hours went by while he listened to the sheriff fight to stay alive, it actually took the man only a few minutes to die.” Duh. The overabundance of voiceovers may be less surprising when you realize that the film is an adaptation of a novel, and that the author, Donald Ray Pollock, also narrates Campos’s film. This is a man who likes to hear himself speak, and we’re the ones who suffer from the tedium. 

I’ve used the word “inexplicable” a few times in this review, and I stand by it. The Devil All the Time is constrained by its inability to string its many fragments into a cohesive narrative. In No Country, there’s a central question that links the disparate fragments together. This is revealed in Jones’s voiceover – he’s an old man, looking back on what he’s seen and trying to find his place in the world – but this is missing from The Devil All the Time. Campos’s film is brutal and disturbing. But why? Unlike No Country, which uses violence to reflect on questions about human nature, aging, good and evil, thus forcing Ed Tom and the viewer to question what we know about the world, Campos never explores these questions. Carl ends up being nothing more than “a sick fuck,” as Pollock puts it. Arvin kills because he’s scared. Campos gives us a few gory shots and then leaves us with bad dreams, unmemorable characters, and more answers than questions. 

At times, I couldn’t help wondering what The Devil All the Time would have looked like in the hands of a more ruthless editor. Cut the film by an hour, cut all but the first voiceover, gloss over some of the gorier scenes, get rid of Pattinson, recast Holland, and you might actually have a decent film. The grittiness of No Country, the small-town character drama of Mudbound (2017), even the nonlinear, interweaving narrative of Pulp Fiction (1994) are all there, but The Devil All the Time lets these narrative elements stagnate rather than swell. We’re also missing the cinematographic magic and the performance talent that made those films great. I guess some films were made just so they can be forgotten.

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