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The Devil All The Time

by on September 16, 2020
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The Devil All The Time (L-R) Bill Skarsgård as Willard Russell, Michael Banks Repeta as Arvin Russell (9 Years Old). Photo Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2020

When I think of “bad movies with all-star casts,” I don’t typically think of moody, meditative character dramas with awards-circuit flair. Normally, my mind goes to The Holiday, or Valentine’s Day—or maybe less frequently, even Gangster Squad. You might point to Crash, one of the most famously regrettable Oscar Best Picture winners, but I guess my brain prioritizes the “bad Oscar winners” label for that one.

I don’t think The Devil All The Time is a bad movie, necessarily, (I mean, nor do I think it will receive much Oscar attention, but that’s neither here nor there in the uniquely empty movie cycle that is 2020) but it does have a large, stellar cast of both newly-minted mainstays and exciting up-and-comings, and unfortunately, it manages to fail to offer any of them enough substance to make a strong impression on the mind.

Tom Holland leads a cast filled to the brim with talent: Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Robert Pattinson, Eliza Scanlen, Sebastian Stan, Harry Melling, and Haley Bennett—all of whom turn in performances worthy of a phenomenal film. But whether it’s just not enough screen time (as is especially the case for Bennett, Scanlen, and Keough), or just not enough substance to go around to such a large ensemble in a limited amount of time, too many actors feel wasted here. Holland probably gets the best work in, but only because he has, far and away, the most to do.

Devil takes us to mid-1950s Coal Creek, West Virginia, to follow the story of a boy named Arvin (Holland) through adolescence and early adulthood in the shadow of his late father Willard (Skarsgård). WIllard was a WWII veteran who saw some terrible things, and it scarred him when he returned home.

These scars manifested in some reckless and toxic behaviors that imprinted both emotional trauma and social callousness on Arvin. After Willard’s wife died, he took his own life, and Arvin was moved in with a family in the southern Ohio town of Knockemstiff. In his new life, the only person he’s particularly close to is his step-sister Lenora (Scanlen). He violently defends her from bullies and predators at school—one wonders to what degree he’s actually concerned for her wellbeing, and to what degree he just needs an outlet for his anger.

When a new, unorthodox preacher (Pattinson) comes to town, he takes a shine to Lenora, and abuses his religious authority to prey on her sexually. Arvin becomes suspicious of their behavior, which simply starts the ticking clock on the bomb that is Arvin’s physical and emotional restraint.

Meanwhile, a perverted Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque couple (Keough and Clarke) rides up and down the highways of the area, picking up young male hitchhikers on the side of the road, pretending to be goodhearted transporters before forcibly subjecting them to their violent fetishes. Seems to be only a matter of time until our edgy loner Arvin ends up hitching a ride with these two.

Meanwhile meanwhile, the Bonnie of the pair, Sandy, has a brother, the local sheriff Lee Bodecker, who’s worried Sandy’s risque escapades (though he doesn’t know the heinous extent) will reflect poorly on his political campaigns. He’s desperate enough to attempt to make deals, or force them, with local crime fixtures.

There’s a fairytale connectedness to Devil that keeps it constantly engaging until the end, even when the story events, as they unfold, aren’t all that interesting themselves. When will Arvin find out about his sister and the preacher? What will he do? What’s the relevance of this sadistic couple? How does Sheriff Bodecker eventually tie into their story, into Arvin’s story, into a coherent picture? Devil keeps you guessing, which is about the best it can do, beyond offering an abundance of strong acting, to remain compelling. This is driven home by the fact that the finale feels all too expected and unrevealing to warrant the buildup of tension and dread throughout the film’s middle.

Unfortunately, there’s just not enough to unpack here. Devil’s pervasive cynicism about the twisted nature of some people, and how those people abuse trust, is undeniably a true reflection of aspects of the real world. And there is value to be had in observations like that. But it’s an incredibly obvious and mundane observation to make the centerpiece of your story, especially with so little going on beyond it. There’s a repetitiveness to Devil that is at first intriguing, then confusing, and then annoying in how it beats you over the head with characters’ despicable behaviors.

It’s all delivered gorgeously; not only the performances, but grimy production design and stoic cinematography capture the setting of this Americana underbelly in a way that heightens the depravity of its characters. Unfortunately, the presentation is about the extent of truly great things that can be said about this film. The actual content, for all of its nasty depictions of nasty people, feels depressingly mundane. And maybe that’s because it fails to mean anything beyond the sadness of it all.

For clarity, I haven’t read Donald Ray Pollock’s novel, of which this film is an adaptation. So maybe it’s a wonderfully accurate rendition of the source material—I can’t tell, and I don’t believe that it matters. If the book feels the same way the movie does, I’m not particularly interested. A dry story is a dry story, accurate adaptation or not.

Antonio Campos’s direction is surefooted and patient, and I’d absolutely put his name on a list of directors to keep your eye on in the future (though more for his 2016 film Christine than for this one). But the combination of relentlessly dour subject matter, repetitive and un-insightful messaging, and a lack of sufficient resolution to the film’s dramatic escalations mean that The Devil All The Time is little more than a slow and quiet exploration of human depravity, with little to say beyond its repeated line, “There’s a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there.” That may be true, but I don’t need two-and-a-half hours of underdeveloped characters doing heinous things to teach me that.

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