THE STORY – Sinister characters converge around a young man devoted to protecting those he loves in a postwar backwoods town teeming with corruption and brutality.
THE CAST – Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska & Robert Pattinson
THE TEAM – Antonio Campos (Director/Writer) & Paulo Campos
THE RUNNING TIME – 138 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
“The Devil All the Time” is an ensemble film that explores the effects of religion and violence on multiple generations of people in small-town Ohio and West Virginia. Directed by Antonio Campos, it spans over the 1950s and 1960s with a multitude of characters. While the screenplay by Antonio and Paulo Campos fails to perfectly bring the novel by Donald Ray Pollock to life and a first hour that struggles to engage the audience, the film does pose interesting ideas about religion and the way that families live out their own legacies.
The film opens on Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) who has recently returned from WWII and has yet to heal from the violence that he has witnessed. He meets the pretty young waitress, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), and before long, they’re married with a young son (Michael Banks Repeta). Willard struggles to deal with his return to civilian life and teaches his son the importance of fighting back against those who wrong you. Skarsgård gives a very good performance as the distraught Willard, even if he doesn’t have the chance to provide much depth because of the short amount of time we spend with his character.
Meanwhile, we also meet the mousy and mild Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and the passionate but odd traveling preacher Roy Laferty. Harry Melling has often struggled to transcend the childhood role he’s best known for, but he gives an intense if off-putting performance as Roy. Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) are a couple traveling the roads and committing twisted crimes and are protected by the fact that Sandy’s older brother is the crooked sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan). Their plotline helps pull together both halves of the film even though it feels like it deserves more time than it’s given because of its complexity.
The second half of the film jumps forward in time to a now teenage Arvin (Tom Holland), living with his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and adoptive sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). The younger generation is living out the legacy of their parents and Arvin looks after his family with the same gruffness that his father once had. Scanlen gives a sweet, tearful performance and Holland’s jean jacket-wearing, cigarette-smoking Arvin is a departure from his role as Peter Parker in the “Spider-Man” franchise, showing us more range from the young actor.
His scene with the preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) is one of the few that really succeeds in creating the sort of dramatic tension that the film seems to crave. Pattinson gives a charismatic but characteristically strange performance as the reverend and is easily one of the standouts of the film despite his small amount of screentime. (And no, I can’t stop thinking about his frilly shirts.)
The film struggles to find its footing in the first half but improves when it jumps forward in time. However, the overall structure of the film is weak and occasionally confusing with the amount of time jumping that goes on, sometimes with titles to provide context and sometimes without. There are a few jarringly abrupt transitions between storylines. The novel is divided into sections and the film might have benefitted from something similar. There are also a lot of characters to keep track of and it feels like the audience doesn’t get enough time with most of them to develop strong character arcs. If many of the performances feel one-note, it’s not the actors’ fault.
The most fascinating thing about the film is its commentary on how religion and violence are both inherited. The film doesn’t seem to take a stance on religion itself, as there are immoral characters who both do and don’t believe, but what it makes clear is that religion is no guarantee of strong morals. Religion is just as important to the plot as you would expect it to be in a story that takes place in this sort of community, but equally so is violence. As the voiceover narration (which comes and goes sporadically in the film and is provided by the novel’s author, Donald Ray Pollock) states, “Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.”
The film does have some grisly images and darker themes. By the end of the film, almost every character has been touched by some form of violence. There are even parallels in the violence that we see generationally: you can tell that Holland’s trembling fury and Skarsgård’s intense but quiet rage is linked.
Even though the film takes a while to settle into its tone and story, once it does there is much to appreciate. The cast gives solid if not, spectacular performances and the costumes and particularly the old cars are lovely. I appreciate the darker themes, especially concerning religion, that the film is willing to take on and the fact that I genuinely did not expect where the plot led. While “The Devil All the Time” might not live up to its full potential, it’s thought-provoking and may stick with its audience for a while.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Solid performances from the impressively assembled ensemble cast in a story that takes some genuinely unexpected twists and turns.