A multi-generational tale of violence and religiosity on the Ohio-West Virginia border.
Directed by Antonio Campos
Starring Tom Holland, Riley Keough, and Robert Pattinson
Review by Jon Kissel
The ensemble, intertwined story of The Devil All the Time places the Russell family at its center, starting with Willard (Bill Skarsgard) as a haunted veteran of the Pacific theater. He marries sainted waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett), and they have a son named Arvin. Charlotte dies of cancer and Willard subsequently kills himself, leaving Arvin in the care of Willard’s mother, who is raising the similarly aged Lenora after her parents (Mia Wasikowska and Harry Melling) disappeared though Lenora’s father murdered her mother in a deluded attempt to perform a miracle and was then killed himself by a roving pair of serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough). By the time Arvin and Lenora (Tom Holland and Eliza Scanlon) are teenagers, they’re devoted siblings who are driven apart by the arrival of seductive preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). There’s also a corrupt sheriff in the mix, played by Sebastian Stan, the type of person who’ll call his sister ‘little sister’ to make sure we know who he’s related to in the cast.
As a member of the cult of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Devil All the Time immediately leaps out as an homage, if not an outright ripoff. Both films are adaptations, and both choose to use a narrator who’s not a character in the film. The crucial difference is that in Jesse James, the narrator acts as a time machine with his elevated prose and mystical knowledge of the characters, taking the viewer back to a period where people might’ve talked that way and when their legends loomed the largest. In The Devil All the Time, the narration runs into the problem that all narration must avoid: it treats the viewer like an idiot. It blurts out links that are apparent to anyone paying even mild attention to the events onscreen, and when it goes into the characters’ heads, the detail it provides is often purely for the sake of cruelty, as when a young Arvin recalls the best day he ever spent with his father also being the one where he found his mom unconscious on the floor of their kitchen. The film takes a lot of pleasure in twisting the knife, a sadism most utilized by the narrator giving dry commentary on the bitterly ironic thoughts of the characters.
A film that has so little respect for its audience has an equal amount for its characters and its setting. There’s zero specificity to the West Virginia/Ohio towns that the characters drive in between, such that the same story could’ve taken place anywhere and been identical. It’s all standard hyper-religiosity and ironclad gender roles, violent men with subservient women in their thrall. Campos, who crafted articulate psychological profiles in his earlier films and did so with cinematic flair, lets the narrator do all the work. Willard moves from losing his religion in the war to being so zealous as to crucify the family pet, and he does so not through any character work or gradual transformation but because the film demands that he do so. Lenora falls in with Teagardin because of an overly tidy genetic predisposition to oily preachers, despite the fact that Teagardin humiliates her surrogate mother in a community that is supposed to remember every slight. The film thinks that if characters speak in a vague Appalachian accent that the viewer will immediately buy them being gullible or zealous, and doesn’t do any work to make their actions recognizable beyond some kind of broad caricature.
It’s notable that of the nine actors I’ve mentioned who are in The Devil All the Time, seven are from Europe or Australia and Campos is an NYC kid. Bennet’s American with her small role, and Keough’s American royalty as the granddaughter of Elvis, though she’s as distant as possible from Elvis’ hardscrabble upbringing. I can’t help but think it’s relevant that so much of the cast isn’t grounded in the region, especially compared to Winter’s Bone or Nichols’ Shotgun Stories or Mud, all films that feel completely authentic as opposed to the goings-on here. The bigness of the performances, especially Pattinson trying on a brand new accent, prevents much of a connection. The exception, and therefore the film’s standout, is Holland, who conveys a reluctance in doling out violence but also an exhilaration that is the most visceral thing in a film that contains the aforementioned dog crucifixition.
A film that has so little respect for its audience or its characters doesn’t get much from me either. A movie that rubs the viewer’s nose in cruelty like this one does has to justify its hard-to-watch nature with something more than ‘boy, humans sure can be dicks to each other.’ Campos contrives scenario after scenario where the average citizen of this region is the absolute worst, until that’s what can be expected at every predictable turn. Neighbors think nothing of talking about nailing the wife and mother of characters within earshot. Bullies don’t just call names, but are rapists. Anyone decent dies screaming after having their dick shot off. Great actors like Wasikowska are wasted as naïve, noble sufferers, and also Sebastian Stan is eliminating local crime bosses because he needs something to do in this overlong, overstuffed mess. The Devil All the Time didn’t come in for anywhere near as much scorn as Hillbilly Elegy did, but it’s hard to believe that it’s worse than this. C-