I’m having a hard time remembering the last time I saw a movie with such a broad carousel of loathsome characters as those who inhabit the rotten backwoods of Antonio Campos’s aptly named “The Devil All The Time.” A rabid dog of a drama with a charred worldview, the film’s menacing personalities kill, subdue and corrupt with such ease that they’re hardly rendered as personalities at all. They make the devious Thrombey clan of “Knives Out” seem like the Brady Bunch, and journeying through this sliver of tarnished American heartland is enough to make you recite 15 Hail Mary’s as soon as the credits roll…if not when a pastor dumps a jar of spiders onto his face in the movies’ wildest sermon since Paul Dano exorcised his demons in “There Will Be Blood.”
Taking its cues from the intergenerational storytelling of “The Place Beyond the Pines” and the brutal instincts of a Jeremy Saulnier joint (but lacking the gut-punch sophistication of either), “The Devil All The Time” sharpens piety into something perversely hypocritical: The delusion that one’s godly devotion is another’s excuse to pursue heinous acts. Robert Pattinson’s salacious Pastor Teagardin twists ostensible enlightenment into convincing a young girl to undress herself in his car, sparking a long chain of bloody vengeance that’s the closest thing to dramatic momentum steering an otherwise aimless story.
That scene could have been the tipping point for the movie at large, but “The Devil All the Time” – adapted by Campos and his brother, Paulo, from Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel of the same name – much too confidently turns an unwieldy belief that it’s the first film to envision religion as bloody contradiction into a sprawling tale of evergreen aggression. It wields a blade that passes from one set of characters to the next – one decade to the next – via rote storytelling structure and frustrating lack of nuance. Its edge, and our investment, is blunted once a man who claims to be devout plunges a screwdriver into his wife’s neck, then quickly proceeds to cry out for God to resurrect her. Do we wince at how candidly the murder (and the filmmaking) is carried out in the moment, or awkwardly laugh at the man’s newfound dilemma of having a dead wife who is very much staying dead? We aren’t too sure. Neither, unfortunately, does Campos seem to be. Subtext is lost in excess.
The darkness that seeps through every forest and alley (shot with radioactive gloominess by Lol Crawley) in the writer-director’s first film since 2016’s “Christine” is strong enough to corrupt the plucky Peter Parker himself. A morose Tom Holland plays Arvin Russell, the closest thing to a protagonist that emerges from a massive ensemble that includes Pattinson, sporting an accent as slippery as his character; Bill Skarsgård, as Arvin’s hot-tempered war veteran father; Riley Keough and Jason Clarke, doing a subdued yet anarchic impression of Bonnie and Clyde; and Eliza Scanlen, as Arvin’s stepsister and one of the rare avatars of pure intentions.
Arvin is a purer figure as well (or at least easier to root for, relatively speaking), though he’s navigating his way out of a traumatic childhood that saw him lose both parents in quick succession, as well as the family dog (it’s my duty to inform that that particular scene is a very-not-enjoyable one). Like everyone else in the movie, one in which first impressions mostly prove accurate, we’re given little information by which to gauge Arvin as a character beyond how grimaced we get by his decisions, and how comfortably he resides within the sinful margins of Knockemstiff, Ohio. Mostly he seems to be looking for a release. And find it he does—in the faces of his stepsister’s bullies that he’s all too willing to beat to a bloody pulp.
Vengeance is a well-worn thematic path explored by “The Devil All The Time,” even as countless other movies have made the stroll more intriguing. But Campos gets entangled in the thorny underbrush of overwrought sincerity through which he approaches the project, which at times is so devoted to a rather uncomplicated examination of complex material that it begins to feel like self-parody. A more streamlined screenplay from the Campos brothers might have achieved an emotional thrust that’s missing between young Arvin and his pious father; here, a scene that sees Skarsgård’s Willard nearly kill two men who had made a passing remark about his wife is followed up by a paradoxically twee “And that’s how you stand up to bullies, son!” moment. Willard’s hypocrisy is evident; whether it’s acknowledged by a movie that’s constantly searching for something interesting to say about its indulgences is another question.
An overreliance on voiceover narration (coming from Pollock himself) further detaches us from what’s happening on the screen, and robs us of much-needed quieter moments for this otherwise strong cast to radiate as people rather than mere channels through which violence can be carried out. Or, at least, human beings with a soul. Ironically, the grisliest moments in the story are the ones we might not see. Keough and Clark play Sandy and Carl Henderson, who are defined by little more than their penchant for picking up and embroiling hitchhikers in a twisted game of carnal desire and death—Carl proclaims that’s his religion. If you say so, pal. But why? Clarke plays the role with intriguing and understated wickedness, but it’s not enough to provide insight on his twisted approach to spirituality. The Hendersons eventually have a role to play in the film’s climactic domino chain of doom, but it’s by the hand of coincidence that Campos turns the table on these serial killers, zapping hard-hitting drama from his commentary on the universality of moral decay.
This isn’t to say that I ever felt numbed to what unfolds onscreen in “The Devil All The Time.” But the movie is more an endurance test than an interesting story with something new to say about the weaponization of religion; in its more mundane stretches, it feels like it’s repeating the same messages over and over, journeying to the same dark side of human nature without suggesting that any of its inhabitant would rather be anywhere else. There may not be an oasis of decency in the scorched-Earth world of “The Devil All The Time,” which seems to be the movie’s point—if it has any point at all. But it left me wondering, early and often, about the fires that must have erupted and blackened these peoples’ souls to begin with.
"The Devil All The Time" is rated R for violence, bloody/disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language throughout. It's available to stream on Netflix Wednesday.
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Haley Bennett
Directed by Antonio Campos
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