"The Devil All the Time" was an adaptation ripe for the picking. Critics compared the 2011 book by Donald Ray Pollock, an American Southern Gothic novel that happens to be set as much in the Midwest as the Appalachian South, to the works of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. Netflix's adaptation, directed and co-written by Antonio Campos, hews tightly to Pollock's grim and violent narrative. Netflix even hired the author to do voice-overs.
This makes the project feel like a living audiobook, cast with a fantasy lineup of A-list actors. But the film needs all of this talent just to hang together. Brutal, with a large twist of religious hypocrisy crossed with Southern noir, "The Devil All The Time" is an oddly meandering film, with little central cohesiveness to hold it together, other than everyone's capacity for extreme violence.
Brutal, with a large twist of religious hypocrisy crossed with Southern noir, "The Devil All The Time" is an oddly meandering film.
The story is a savage one, and the book was known for its blood-soaked scenes. But among the endless betrayals, the suicides, the executions — not to mention the rape and abuse of women — the story was trying to make a point about this specific period between World War II and Vietnam. While today we tend to airbrush the 1950s with visions of girls in poodle skirts and boys with guitars discovering rock 'n' roll, Pollock's argument is that the human capacity for violence, without a focus, pummels everything in its path. It's a very dark view of the world, and in another version of 2020, in which we were dealing only with the rage and violence engendered by our current president, such a worldview might feel timely. But in the middle of a pandemic, in which thousands of people die every day not because of our capacity for violence but because of our lack of empathy, it just feels depressing.
The good news is that the film isn't nearly as violent at the novel, but that's not saying much. It opens in the Pacific theater of World War II, with soldier Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) losing his faith in God because of the horrors he's witnessing. The nonlinear first third revolves around the elder Russell as he finds love and God back home, only to rage at his creator when his wife, Charlotte (Haley Bennett), falls ill. Before moving to the great beyond himself, Russell makes sure to pass on all the rage and religious confusion to his only son, Arvin.
In the next phase of the timeline, Arvin has grown up to be played by Tom Holland, and he is heading toward some extreme acts of violence himself. The semi-episodic nature of the story, along with the nonlinear sections of narrative, makes "The Devil All the Time" feel less like a movie and more like a Netflix series that got edited into a feature film.
It's easy to see that "The Devil All The Time" was made as a film and not as a Netflix series almost certainly because it's meant as Oscar bait, not merely because it's being released in theaters, as well on the streaming service. The cast also includes Jason Clarke and Riley Keough as a serial killer couple, along with Robert Pattinson, who arrives halfway through as the Rev. Preston Teagardin, an itinerant preacher whose heart is definitely not with God. Even underused actors like Harry Melling and Mia Wasikowska are at the top of their game, playing a couple whose short-lived marriage is disrupted by God's failure to intervene or to faith-heal when Melling's character decides to pour spiders all over his face.
One big problem, it seems, is that this ensemble was partly conceived with Chris Evans in the role of the corrupt Sheriff Lee Bodecker. The sheriff ties all the disparate parts of this story together over the generations, and he gives the story a grounded, charismatic center. But Evans left the project sometime during preproduction and was recast with his Marvel co-star Sebastian Stan. Stan is a fine actor, but he plays the taciturn face of corrupt law enforcement with an odd self-effacement (not unlike as he does in his role as The Winter Soldier in the Marvel films). It creates a void where the film desperately needs an anchor. It also, unfortunately, leaves the film's finale far less powerful than it might have been.
Without something bold to knit the pieces of narrative together, Holland becomes the central figure audiences latch onto. The talented actor was already on his way to a respectable acting career before he become a household name as Marvel's current Spider-Man. But roles like this are a reminder that the more money he stashes away from web-slinging, the more freedom he'll have in the future. Even so, it's doubtful that Arvin will be the role that earns Holland awards season gold, as much as Netflix might push. (Though the pandemic may yet create some Oscar surprises.) But seeing how well he holds a film together here, especially one that fights him on it, is proof that there are great things to come.
Speaking of those who have stashed away blockbuster money and used it wisely, the film's real secret weapon is Robert Pattinson. He plays the brand new preacher in town, an authority figure who likes his women all too young and his girls younger. There are times when Pattinson's religious histrionics feel pulled from another, campier film, but it's necessary levity — even if it's not always supposed to be.
"The Devil All the Time" believes itself to be making serious points about human horrors, but after far too much time is spent indulging them, it's difficult to figure out where the bloodshed ends and the message begins. The film is also a victim of its timing. Perhaps in a non-pandemic world, audiences would be more amendable to a story about unnecessary death and the tragedy of the human condition. Perhaps we are fighting the devil all the time. But here it just feels like so many extra wasted lives.