'The Devil All The Time' is sluggish, sucker-punching highlight reel of criminality that doesn't amount to the thrills or lessons meant to be taught.
- 👹 Loaded cast.
- 👹 Healthy period appeal.
- 👹 Feels double its length.
- 👹 Underserves actors.
- 👹 Pain infliction without payoffs.
Maybe, next time, we only give the devil some of the time? Half the time? Antonio Campos’ The Devil All The Time feels like it lasts three years and a day, crammed with bleakness for the sake of dramatic fervor. You have to wonder what talents like The Coen Brothers could do with Donald Ray Pollock’s source novelization instead of this backwoods slog of pornographic slaughters, adulterous priests, and fried chicken livers. As is, a star-studded cast mutters their way through a string of monstrous acts that equate the Campos’ script (co-written by Paulo Campos) to a masochist’s manifesto in the form of finger-lickin' exploitation. With actions so abhorrent, one’s disinterest is a testament to the effectiveness of tone, transitions, and jumbled storytelling.
Rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, in the post-WWII 60s era, play backdrop to a host of characters all converging down the same wicked path. Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) target hitchhikers, coerce them into sexual situations, then murder their guests for pleasure. Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) is a silver-tongued preacher who doesn’t mind getting young girls in his congregation pregnant. Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) is a corrupt sheriff and brother to Sandy, who spends more on coverups than groceries. All these sharks, swimming in waters where innocents like Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) drift, who gets caught in their wake while on his quest for justice in the name of step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen).
The Devil All The Time is one of those painfully overstuffed narratives that’s a chore to detail in critical form because there are still more characters to discuss. Like, too many. Alvin’s father, Willard (Bill Skarsgård), sacrifices the family dog to hopefully save his cancer-sickened wife, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), through healing prayer. Lenora’s mother, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), falls for a church speaker who pours spiders over his face as an act of faith (Roy Laferty, played by Harry Melling). Everyone’s intentions are murkier than Louisiana swamp water, falling victim to false prophets or crookedness to attain what they desire. Most end up dead because that’s the kind of darker-than-night experience this is. Play with the devil? You get the horns, pitchfork, and hellfire.
What prevails, the sum of all these rotten ingredients, is the equivalent of emotional torture porn. Vile characters on screen do viler things, but the “why” seems so inconsequential. There’s never any urge to reach farther, even at a lurching two-hours-plus. Campos appears to address the novel’s many intertwined vines by not cutting anything, no matter the duration. Unfortunately, The Devil All The Time never strikes a pace that boils over in the heat of depravity, presenting a collection of violent non-sequiturs that stumble into one another’s frames. Again I reference the Coens because there needs to be more substance, better handling of timelines, exemplified by recycling scenes over to remind audiences what they’ve already, assuredly, forgotten.
With an ensemble this rich, you’d expect more from performances. Riley Keough as a vacation serial killer whose methods include penile mutilation and photographing illicit acts with corpses ("models"). Robert Pattinson as a dapper man of faith who embodies the ongoing themes of theological manipulation in poverty-stricken communities, sporting that excruciating accent which sure-as-hell shows he didn’t consult a dialogue coach. With a character roster this loaded, personalities should be distinct, yet designs are all so monotone, so dour. Actors downplay their wildest characteristics and meander through altercations that evoke buzzkill terms like “serious” and “gritty” in the wrong context. Tom Holland stands out as a boy, without his dog, who sucker-punches bullies in the name of family honor, but even that’s a tedious appearance at the film’s daunting length. The Devil All The Time wants you hurt, and recoil, reminded by every facet of filmmaking.
Moreover, the repetitious tortures of what you might call sinister crossroads are a chicken stew that’ll cure no soul. Men exist to chastise women with accusatory “whore” slurs or dispose of partners as pawn sacrifices along their journeys. Women live to die, whether that’s murder by a man, suicide because of a man, or death due to self-defense. Religion is always the scapegoat coverup, as a means of addressing blind devotion while dangerous miscreants commit crimes while under a crucifix's shadow like all are absolved. Again, and again, until no one is left standing since karma is the real angel of death. It should all mean something, but it doesn’t. Instead, exhaustion leads to fatigue, stranding viewers in this sinner’s time-loop with the shallowest of gallows storytelling.
I’m not one who’s opposed to cynical, all-bad-roads narration (speaking of, without the film's narrator, holy heck I'd be even more lost). Some of my favorite films harbor the bleakest intentions. The Devil All The Time doesn’t disappoint because of its grim underbelly. It fails to express anything more thoughtful or compelling about the spilled blood, the horrid atrocities being committed to film. It’s a stew of soured vegetables served without relief and alongside relatively mundane attention to accouterment details. Punished are the wicked, failed are the believers, devoured are the innocent: we get it. Messaging that doesn’t need to be drawn beyond the two-hour mark, especially when your adaptation can’t piece together the puzzle box narrative you’ve so ambitiously chosen to adapt.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for such outlets as What To Watch, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria, Shudder, Ebert Voices, and countless other publications. He is a member of the Hollywood Critics Association and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.
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