Turns out the Devil is not so far away.
Set in small towns in Virginia and Ohio following World War II, “The Devil All the Time,” based on Donald Ray Pollock‘s novel of the same name, follows the melodrama surrounding its peculiar and mysterious characters. Each of these characters and their twisted tendencies tie into their relationship with God and participation in religion, and director Antonio Campos‘ film dazzles in its exploration of the sickest sins of man.
Campos was tackling a tremendous feat to start with — the film follows the lives of a hefty handful of characters as their storylines weave in and out of each other, a task not always easily achieved in film runtime. While we don’t get a full-on introspective look at each character, we learn just enough about them for their stories to be worth following, and for their relationship with sin to be intriguing — a WWII vet struggles with his wrath, a cop with his greed and a preacher with his lust. The film offers a dark look at American indulgence mixed with religious exploitation, and it’s not light on the suffering. Some scenes are reminiscent of some of the wicked, indulgent violence of 2018’s “Bad Times at the El Royale.”
If nothing else, “The Devil All the Time” practically guaranteed to deliver the highest caliber of acting with it’s powerhouse cast. Our protagonist, if you will, is Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), a character who’s essentially been plagued since birth with suffering. After his mother (Haley Bennett) dies of cancer and WWII vet father (Bill Skarsgård) sacrifices his dog and then kills himself, he’s sent to live with his grandmother, uncle and stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). This was the first role I’ve seen Holland in outside of “Spider-Man” and it proves his acting chops hold up outside of innocent teenager Peter Parker. Holland’s performance is nuanced and understated, a nice compliment to some of the more eccentric characters, and his pain is painfully palpable. He toes the line between being condemned to repeat the sins of his father and breaking through his wrath and fury with an earnestness and authenticity that you wouldn’t imagine coming from Marvel’s golden boy. He was the standout in the film and one whom I was pleasantly surprised by.
Rivaling Holland for best performance is Scanlen, who has really driven home her incredible acting range with this, 2018’s “Sharp Objects” and 2019’s “Little Women.” She’s breathtaking to watch, so innocent and sincere without being one-dimensional. She’s another who delivers extremely compelling lines with subtlety, relying on a spark in her eyes or slight twitch from the corner of her mouth. Her youthful naiveté and helplessness around powerful religious figures will unfortunately resonate with a lot of people, as Lenora’s reality is not exclusive to the silver screen.
I was, however, slightly disappointed with Robert Pattinson as the evil preacher Preston Teagardin at times, and I want to emphasize at times here. The scenes that don’t do it for me are the ones where he’s more eccentric and almost comical, notably in his sermons about “DELUUUUUSION” and chicken livers. Pattinson adopted this whiny, nasally southern accent for the role, which is fitting in parts, but in these wildly out-there scenes, it just seems like he’s uncomfortably awkward (though I suppose that was sort of the point). I’m not sure if Pattinson is more at fault for this, or if it’s on Campos for how he guided the character, and it’s probably a mix of both. At other times, though, like in his solo scenes with Scanlen, Pattinson absolutely nails it — he’s eerily creepy, slimy and downright evil in the most frighteningly plausible way.
Skarsgård is also incredible in his role, and Sebastian Stan, Riley Keough and Jason Clarke are quite serviceable in their roles as the Ohio-based characters. It was a daring choice on Campos’ part to assemble a cast of British, Australian, Swedish and Romanian actors to play parts with deeply southern accents, but they all surprisingly sound unified and convincing. There’s a very detailed authenticity to the look of the film, too, which takes place mostly in the ’50s and ’60s and perfectly captures rural southern life. Everything from costuming, set design and color grading wraps up the feel of the film. There’s a slight air of southern charm, but it’s mottled with the grime of suffering and violence.
I do have some complaints about the Ohio storyline, though. Up until the point where Stan, Keough and Clarke’s characters become woven into the rest of the storyline, their individual plots are largely glazed over, and therefore it seems their entire presence is quite arbitrary. Stan’s role as the greedy cop Lee is symbolic of the corruption of secular authority, but we just aren’t given enough quality time with him for it to be effective. Keough’s role as his sister Sandy could have been interesting, but we’re not queued in at all to why she’s doing the things she does. The actors did what they could with the roles but their stories just weren’t super compelling. That plot felt largely neglected and was a little dull to watch until it wove back into the larger story.
Still, “The Devil All the Time” is a devilish look at human corruption, particularly as it relates to religion, and the most frightening part of it all is that these violent sins aren’t all that outlandish. Campos’ look at the dark side of humanity and religion is sadly a side we’ve seen before. The film’s compelling leads and mischievously sensational plot make it a dark, indulgent melodrama about fighting the Devil all the time.
Final rating: 3.75/5
Featured image: Courtesy Netflix