Review: Bleak 'The Devil All The Time' paints a grim and violent picture
Courtesy of Netflix
Everyone’s a sinner in “The Devil All the Time,” Antonio Campo’s compelling, but bleak adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s brutally violent novel.
Campos - in conjunction with Netflix’s deep pockets - bring a wealth of talent to the screen for his sprawling and nearly two and half hour adult drama. Taking shape over the latter half of the 1950s and the early ‘60s in two rural Appalachian towns, “The Devil All The Time” ties every character together through faith, corruption, and betrayal. There’s plenty going on plot wise and those looking for the Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson show might be turned off, considering both stars don’t show up until about the 45 and 80 minute marker respectively. And those early scenes present their fair share of challenges, including one depiction of animal cruelty not for the faint of heart.
Foundation and structural issues aside, the backwoods and gothic setting infuses the characters with determination and purpose as the film moves along, and the cast rises to the occasion. Though he doesn’t appear until later in the film, Tom Holland’s Arvin is the central focus of the picture. We meet him first, at age 9, portrayed by Micheal Banks Repeta, son of Willard (Bill Skarsgard). There’s plenty of misconception around time when it comes to these opening scenes and if not for a narrator, it could be tough to follow. For someone who's generally not a fan of voice over narration, I must say it proves an endearing aspect for Campos and the one cliche that actually works. (Not to mention it's done by the novelist himself).
But these opening moments lay the groundwork for the rest of the picture: One scene, for instance, shows Willard and another fella seemingly meeting the woman of their dreams in the same diner feet from each other. We’re told these characters paths will cross and interlink later in the narrative, and sure enough, they do.
Skarsgard - who looks different when not chasing children around in clown makeup as Pennywise - channels plenty of different energies and aurora’s as Willard, who just returned home from fighting in World War II, and is struggling with his connection to the almighty Lord. It’s not long before he becomes a prayerful man again, but all the prayers in the world can’t save Arvin from becoming an orphan, shipped off to live with his grandmother, Emma (Kristin Griffith) in the fictional town of Coal Creek, West Virginia.
His stepsister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen, last seen in “Little Women”) has her own tragic background. Her dad (Harry Melling) was one of those preachers who felt they were invincible, going as far to prove his allegiance to God by throwing jars of spiders on his face. Her mother (Mia Wasikowksa) - who had nothing but love in her heart - met an untimely demise.
Whichever way you look in “The Devil All the Time,” tragedy strikes, making it painfully hard to root for. Just when hope arises in the form of the town’s new preacher (an insidious Robert Pattinson) we find out he’s just a pervert that preys on young, high-school aged girls like Lenora. Pattinson, with the minimal amount of screentime he has, turns in a devilish performance whose manic presence and deep Southern drawl showcases a new range for the actor. Similarly for Holland, who is shedding his “Spider-Man” crime fightin’ image in favor of leather jackets, cigarettes, and bare knuckle beatdowns. It’s Holland and Pattinson like you’ve never seen them, and they’re noteworthy standouts. When the two finally come face to face in a heated and tense confrontation, it’s the best scene in the film.
Meanwhile, the film intermittently cuts back to a pair of serial killers (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke) who have made a habit of picking up stranded hitchhikers and murdering them while Clarke’s Carl photographs their torment. And then there’s the least developed character of the bunch: a crooked sheriff played by Sebastian Stan. While it’s not uncommon for actors to get lost in the shuffle of larger, ensemble, pictures, if any of them could muster something to sink their teeth into, I thought Stan might be the one. Sadly he’s not.
But, as the film picks up momentum, Holland is able to step into the leading role and drive the picture home with his vigilante heroism. He’s accompanied by an excellent period soundtrack courtesy of music supervisor Randall Poster. Together, along with production designer Craig Lathrop, they give “The Devil All the Time” an immaculate background and canvas to dig into. Mileage will vary on how the film impacts your worldview, but for as often the picture comes up short, the intoxicating afterglow of backwoods towns in the Deep South proves eerily captivating.
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME premieres on Netflix Wednesday September 16th.