The Devil All The Time Review

The Devil All The Time
Between World War II and Vietnam, a cross-generational melodrama plays out in the backwoods of West Virginia and Ohio. In 1957, Pacific campaign veteran Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) wrestles with his faith and his wife’s illness. In 1965, their son Arvin (Tom Holland) deals with the threats levelled at his pious stepsister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen).

by Dan Jolin |
Published on
Release Date:

16 Sep 2020

Original Title:

The Devil All The Time

It was bound to happen. At some point in his career, Tom Holland was gonna grow up and go properly dark. He’s already in his mid-twenties, but Holland possesses a Michael J. Fox-esque power to appear (and sound) forever teenaged, and has channelled that well into fresh-faced charmers, not least the MCU’s web-slinging Peter Parker. So it’s easy to imagine him craving the change of tone offered by Antonio CamposThe Devil All The Time, directed by a filmmaker well known for his love of shadowy, disturbing material (Simon Killer, Christine), and adapted from a blood-washed Southern Gothic-noir novel by Donald Ray Pollock. If you ever doubted Holland’s potential to handle violent, distressing, full-on adult material, then The Devil All The Time will shut you up.

The Devil All The Time

His Arvin Russell is the closest thing this film has to a ‘good guy’, but that’s not saying much. As young Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) learns from his father Willard (Bill Skarsgård), “There’s a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there.” Such as Harry Melling’s deranged preacher, whose sermon showstopper is emptying a jar of live spiders over his own face. Or Sebastian Stan’s corrupt, paunchy sheriff. Or Jason Clarke’s psycho-creep photographer Carl, who likes to take nude pictures of the hitchhikers he’s just murdered with his wife Sandy (Riley Keough). In the heat and stink of Campos and Pollock’s lawless wild, where faith goes unrewarded and prayers are ignored by an uncaring God, it takes a particular commitment to violence to achieve anything close to justice, and Holland commits himself fully.

The performances are uniformly impressive — there is honestly not a single bum note.

Though this is not strictly ‘his’ film. While Arvin dominates its hasty final act, it is largely an ensemble affair, darting between Carl and Sandy’s road-trip spree, the exploitation of Arvin’s bullied younger stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) by a predatory new Reverend (Robert Pattinson), and the events of eight years earlier, concerning the parents of Arvin (Bill Skarsgård and Haley Bennett) and Lenora (an underused Mia Wasikowska and the aforementioned Melling). While the performances are uniformly impressive — there is honestly not a single bum note — it is all deeply dour material, only rarely relieved by the occasional bloom of human warmth, while some moments push to almost ridiculous extremes (such as a crucified house pet).

But the bleakness of the mood is less of a problem than the film’s loose plotting and choppy structure. It isn’t so much hard to follow as all over the place, in need of a through line that’s more substantial than its ‘sins of the fathers’ theme (which makes it feel reminiscent, in some ways, of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines). Campos papers over the cracks with an omniscient-narrator voiceover, delivered by none other than Pollock himself. But this only worsens matters, with the author’s croaky, homely Midwestern drawl too often intruding to unnecessarily tell us what his characters are thinking — even, in one scene, barging in on a line of Holland’s dialogue before the poor guy even gets to finish it. The result feels less like a worthy tribute to Pollock’s sanguinary prose than an odd, slightly irksome blend of movie and audio book.

A mixed bag of bones and bodies, whose Southern Gothic atmosphere and superb performances — from Holland especially — are let down by the film’s lack of narrative focus. 
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