Sign up for our weekly newsletter
Motorpoint Arena ice skating

Film Review: The Devil All the Time

18 September 20 words: Gemma Finch

Gemma Finch looks at Netflix's new Southern Gothic thriller, starring Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson...

Director: Antonio Campos
Starring: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Robert Pattinson
Running time: 138 minutes

The Devil All the Time is an American psychological thriller based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who himself features in the film as the narrator. The film is directed and co-written by Antonio Campos, and features an impressive ensemble cast comprising of Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson, many of whom get an opportunity to indulgently hone their craft. From an acting point of view, the film has some robust performances, most notably from Robert Pattinson with his performance as an unnerving, repulsive preacher.

Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, The Devil All the Time follows a cast of bizarre characters from the end of World War II to the 1960’s, each character possessing varying levels of psychopathy, with few exceptions. Certainly not one of these exceptions is husband-and-wife serial killers Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) who search America's highways for ‘models’ to photograph, mutilate and murder, for reasons that are not adequately explored. Another equally senseless character is a frenzied preacher named Roy (Harry Melling) who is accompanied by his crippled guitar-playing friend, Theodore, who is given more to do in the novel. A Church demonstration featuring spiders sends Roy on a path of delusion, thinking he can bring back the dead. Arvin Eugene Russell (Tom Holland) has the role of observer in the film - the main protagonist if there is one - who exists within this horrific backdrop. He is first shown in the film as a child, and he grows up to be a decent man, but not without his own violent tendencies.

The film opens with a voice over, a southern drawl that introduces us to Arvin’s childhood, and his father Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) a tormented veteran of the bloody conflict in the South Pacific. He cannot save his wife, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), from an agonising death by cancer, no matter how hard he maniacally prays to a log and a cross he has constructed in the woods near his home. From there, the film meanders through the decades, sometimes returning to the past, before settling on a chronological progression for much of the film. The focus shifts from one character to the next, with not much room left for a character’s backstory or motivations to be fully explored. 

Robert Pattinson’s disturbing preacher is a new arrival to the town where a grown-up Arvin lives, but his arrival was met by an internal “here we go again” in my mind, as I cynically wondered what the next depressing occurrence will be. His presence is simply to show another form of ill-morality, and his character is not given a backstory or any scenes of development beyond his acts of depravity. The assortment of characters, whose paths do not cross in any extraordinary or intriguing manner, caused me to question what the purpose is of pulling on all these different character threads.

A relentless barrage of misery, each scene more dismal than the one that precedes it

I did not expect the film to live up to its somewhat clunky and ambiguous title, which I had trouble remembering each time I tried to recall it. However, The Devil All the Time really is devilish throughout, the title the perfect choice. It is named after the novel it is based upon, which I assume is not a book to be taken on holiday for a light summer read. This is not a feel-good film - which is perfectly acceptable for those of us with a healthy enthusiasm for the dark and gruesome – instead this film is a relentless barrage of misery, each scene more dismal than the one that precedes it. 

However, The Devil All the Time cannot be labelled as gratuitous in order to please those fans of the dark and grisly, because the misery presented here is not particularly stylised or over-the-top enough to sate such tastes. Instead, the bleakness and violence is presented matter-of-factly, offered with a mundane passivity, with no flourishes of creativity by the director. The upbeat 1950’s/60’s pop soundtrack does not compliment the horror we see or give any clues as to how we are supposed to react. My biggest objection to the film is there is no substantial storyline in which the dismal scenes are worked into – instead, these scenes are all that we are given, and are all the film is comprised of, which leads me to question its purpose. 

Religion is presented as an accessory to the latent evil that exists in us in The Devil All the Time, but the presence of morally devoid characters who have no religious connection waters this theme down, making any definite moral message the film is trying to convey about religion being the root of all evil vague. Arvin, the one morally righteous character, witnesses both acts of cruelty and weakness by the religious people around him, but never confronts or questions his own religious stance to any perceptible degree.

The voice-over by Donald Ray Pollock is wistful and gives the film a bizarre dichotomy when placed over the unsavoury tale. It does not provide much insight though and it seems to be present because the makers thought that without a basic explanation of what was happening, the film would be undisciplined and meaningless. In terms of its production values and acting performances, the film is a success, but the tale is not one that begs to be told.

Did you know? Robert Pattinson crafted the Southern accent he speaks with in the film entirely on his own. He refused any coaching and hid his accent until filming began.

The Devil All the Time is available now on Netflix

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now

You might like this too...

Overall Magazine Advert

You might like this too...